THE FREE PRESS
New York London Toronto
This book is dedicated to
Rabbi Larry Kushner
A crucible for silver, a furnace for gold,
and the Lord tries hearts.
— Proverbs 17:3
In 1915 a young factory girl was killed in Atlanta, Georgia. Her
name was Mary Phagan, and she worked at the National Pencil
Factory. The factory manager was Leo Frank. He was a New York
Jew. Frank was accused of the crime and brought to trial.
Preparing for the trip
to Morris's house
The newspaper lined a bandbox. He opened the band-
box to get a fresh shirt collar. He wondered, as he often
did, at the appearance of the newspaper. It had been
glued into the sides and bottom of the box, and the date
showed April 10, 1868. But the newsprint had not yel-
lowed. "Obviously the glue is a preservative," he thought.
"We might think what there is in the glue to preserve
the clarity, and, so, arrive at a new process, or, at a new
application of an existing operation to lengthen the life
of newsprint." He smiled.
"But is not longevity in opposition to its very nature,
which is temporareity? And if we had begun with newsprint
which resisted time, would it not be an advancement if,
by extraction of the preservative glue, the cost or diffi-
2 DAVID MAMET
culty of manufacture could decrease? If some man," he
thought, "recognized one day it was not necessary for the
print to retain clarity beyond the one day, and, so doing,
reformed the industry . . . ?
"Yes," he thought. "Yes. You could take it either the
one way or the other. And either would be as astound-
The newsprint advertised, along the fold where the
box's sides and bottom met, a meeting to petition Is-
abella, the queen of Spain, for the release of Edgardo
"Restore the Child to its Rightful Parents . . . ," the
print read. It was a sheet of the Brooklyn Eagle, and had
been glued into the box by someone in his wife's family,
back in those days.
Edgardo Mortara was a Jewish child. He'd fallen ill
and was believed near death.
One day, in his parents' absence, his Catholic nurse
took him from the house and had him baptized, to save
his soul. The child was kidnapped by the state — taken
from his parents' home. No diplomatic or religious pres-
sure was sufficient to induce the government of Spain or
the Catholic church to give the child back.
Frank looked down at the clipping and thought of
the discussions, the endless and not unenjoyable discus-
sions, he and his fellow Jews had had about the outrage.
The bandbox held his collars and, in a soft morocco
THE OLD RELIGION 3
purse, his collar studs. He fitted the collar into his clean
shirt and stepped to the mirror to tie his tie.
"Yes, you look nice," his wife said.
He nodded, and they continued to prepare for the
ritual trip to Morris's house.
Morris tells a story about
Morris spoke: "... you see, with the placards of the
Klan and the announcements — do you see, they put it in
the local paper: 'Jews and Catholics. You are not required.
Leave now or be eliminated.'
"Well, in Belton, Renston, that area, now, they're
dragging people from their homes. Some priest ..." He
He leaned forward and took a sip of the cordial.
"D'you get these glasses from?" he said.
"Aunt Claire," Frank said.
"Gave 'em to you . . . ?"
He admired the small, etched glass, and turned it to
the light, and raised it to examine the base.
THE OLD RELIGION 5
"Czechoslovakia," he read. He sighed and leaned
back into the davenport, resting his left arm out along its
high wooden frame.
"... Czechoslovakia," he said, softly, to himself,
content that it meant nothing, content to be the head of
the family, to be a man, happy with his friends, relaxed
and full of a good dinner, and to be serious in the way
people are when the subject is arguably more personal
than gossip but devoid of any real threat — who are en-
tertained by those best of entertainments, which go by
the name of serious business.
"I don't begrudge him," Frank thought. "He is, upon
balance, fair, and no more pompous than I would be in
his situation — than I, in all probability, am now.
"If we prize substance, then he, as a substantial man,
is worthy of admiration.
"And, by God, given time, and with a little help, I
might accomplish as much as he."
"The Ku Klux Klan," Morris began again.
". . . But, finally, who does he think he is?" Frank
"The Ku Klux Klan. Which of us is immune?" Mor-
"For all the world like bugbear stories around a
campfire," Frank thought.
"And don't we sit here with our eyes wide like ten-
year-old children — thrilled to be frightened?"
Mayra came back into the room, and behind her,
6 DAVID MAMET
Frank saw the colored maid, who, it was obvious, had
just been receiving some timely instructions from her.
Mayra stood in the doorway and looked out on her
husband as he continued. She looked down over her fam-
ily, so still, listening to Morris go on.
She settled herself into the chair by the door. Slowly,
in the rhythm of his speech, sinking down. Her husband,
his eyes in a sweep of the assemblage, caught her eye and
nodded, as if to a prized lieutenant.
". . . and so Weiss . . . ," he said.
One of the children ran through the hall on some
errand, and her mother reached out of the parlor and
drew her in and whispered to her.
". . . stayed at his home. Three days. And waited the
One of the men nodded, and expelled the cigar smoke.
". . . in all anxiety. His store. His home."
"His savings . . . ," one cousin said.
"Well, exactly" Morris said. "Exactly," granting the
man's intrusion grandly.
"His wife and family. Afraid to venture to the store.
The store shuttered. The help ... I don't know if the
household help came in, those days. They did not say. I
do know they were bound to the house. The family. And
whomever was there.
"What fantasies," he said, as he took up the main
theme again, "must not have formed in his mind? Of
flight ... of opposition . . . What was he to do? I don't
THE OLD RELIGION 7
believe he even had a shotgun in the house. In fact, I'm
sure he didn't."
The men in the room nodded.
"Of flight, then? Abandoning everything? And how
to flee? If the Klan ruled the roads? And could they go
cross-country? Now. What did that leave?"
"The railroad," a young boy suggested.
The adults looked at him.
"No. No. That's right," Morris said. "That left the
railroad. And they packed those few things they thought
they could carry without attracting undue attention — as
casual travelers might carry. And they planned to walk
out, on Saturday evening, as if for a stroll, do you see, to
the depot. Timing their walk to coincide with the depar-
ture — mind you, not the arrival, but the departure — of
the nine-eighteen to Corinth.
"For they would not want to appear and to board the
train, only to have the Klan board after them, and drag
them from it. How terrible that would be — so close to
freedom . . ."
He looked down at the cordial glass on the table be-
fore him. He reached forward and pushed it gently, by
the base, so gently forward three inches.
"They took a baby carriage," he said. "Scheming to
save those few things it would hold. A wicker baby car-
riage filled with the silver, this photograph or that, I
don't know, papers . . .
"And, at the time they set off . . ."
8 DAVID MAMET
"All over the town: posters. 'The Knights of the Ku
Klux Klan vow death upon the Scourge of Mankind, the
Catholic and the Jew. And will eliminate them from our
Midst, and stand, like the fiery ever-turning Sword
"Well, I think that the State Militia should have
come," a young cousin said. "And yes, and yes, 'Who is
the State Militia,' but it seems to me ..."
"It seems to you what?" Morris said. "It seems to you
what? What does it seem to you?" He smiled.
"What happened to them?" one of the women said,
and the group rustled and settled themselves again to-
"Well, I'm going to tell you," he said. "They set out,
walking down to the depot. Thinking at any moment to
receive a bullet in the head, a rifle butt to the face, a shout
which said, 'There are the Jews!'
"To be dragged into an alley,* into the town square.
And they walked on. Past the store. They glanced at it,
'Weiss's Dry Goods.'
"The store they had built from nothing: his father a
peddler, a pack on his back.
"And now Weiss. A pillar of the town. Who has a
cause? A donation required, a . . ."
The men nodded. Businessmen.
"... a gift of ... a bolt of cloth. The uniforms . . ."
"That's right," one of the cousins said.
". . . for the hall teams. For the band. Community work,
THE OLD RELIGION 9
call it what you will. Who do they come to? A part of the
town for the years, fifty years, that they had been there.
'Weiss. Dry Goods.' And here is the town. Risen against
them, and one shout for blood, and their bodies swinging
in the wind. As they walked past the store.
"And you can imagine his bitterness — to pass the
store, knowing at any moment and inevitably it will be bro-
ken into, plundered. Burnt, no doubt. A shell. And what
were two generations of his family's life?
"They heard the whistle of the train, come into the
town. As they walked on now.
"They walked on. They crossed the square. There
was the Klan, down the Main Street. There was a rally,
and they'd thrown up a small platform, and there they
were, in the Robes of the Inquisition were up there, ha-
ranguing the crowd. Thirty, fifty men now, in their white
robes, and the crowd of the townspeople.
"Well. They are committed. And they proceed to the
train. What was that out of the side of his eye? Does
Weiss see one of the Klansmen turn and spy him? Yes.
"On they walk. Do you see the pathetic procession?
Man and wife. And three children, and a baby carriage, in
which is all they have salvaged of their life.
"There is the depot. And there is the train. And
people boarding. And there is the conductor, that's right,
checking his watch. Looks up the line, looks back; and is
10 DAVID MAMET
about to wave the brakeman to pull out. As the family
comes up, comes up to the train, hurrying now: 'Get on
board.' Weiss has his family board — he will go last, tak-
ing the baby carriage, and can still hear, do you see, the
speaker and the crowd but one street over. 'Cleanse our
Land in Blood. . . . Death to the vermin . . . Death to
those who bring death. . . . Death to the Jews.
"About to board the train. 'Praise God I have gotten
my family away from this.'
"When there is a hand on his shoulder. And he turns
to see three of the hooded men."
The colored girl was coming in with a new pot of
coffee. Mayra, seated near the kitchen, put her hand out
to stay her.
". . . And Weiss turned to see the three men."
'"Where are you going?' the one says.
"Can he make his voice out? Does Weiss recognize
him? Does he care? Does it matter at this point? Some
townsman. A customer, certainly. At this point does it
'"Where are you going?' And the second man, who
held a torch, passed the torch to the third and motions
up at the conductor, and points up at Weiss's family, who
are aboard the train, and motions the conductor to re-
move them from the train. And he does.
"The train starts to leave. Starts to pull out. The
conductor, looking back, shakes his head and mounts the
THE OLD RELIGION II
"Weiss and his family standing on the empty plat-
form. The train pulling out.
" 'Where did you think you're going?'
" 'Sir,' Weiss says. "Sir . . . the signs said that the
Jews . . . the Jews were to leave the town. . . .'
The man came forward and stood inches from him.
'Lord, Mr. Weiss,' he said, 'not you. You're our Jew.
The room erupted in laughter. The one cousin
barked. Frank's wife slapped her thighs and looked at her
sister Mayra, who was already removing her handkerchief
and screwing up her face for tears. Frank shook his head
and chuckled. Morris looked at him.
"... our Jew," Morris said, and shook his head, and
nodded to the girl in the kitchen to say, "Yes. Now." And
she came forward with the Passover tray.
The Seder plate
There was the fellow with the gun — an old matchlock,
or wheel lock, misdrawn, for what would the Jews know
about guns: nothing but to look away.
Nonetheless, there he was, pictured on the plate,
around him, in Hebrew, the words Matzoh, Maror, Karpas,
the ritual foods of the Passover seder, and, by each word,
a small depression in the plate. And in the center,
once again, the chap, as he thought of him, holding his
"What a medieval scene," he thought. "Wouldn't one
expect a man in that attire to hold a crossbow . . . ?" For
the chap wore a jerkin and what seemed to be a conical
fur hat. He was caught in a resolute, misdrawn attempt
to depict stealth, and there, beyond him, looking back,
was the rabbit.
THE OLD RELIGION 13
"Even I," Frank said to the man from New York,
"even I, in my ignorance and sloth, know that it cannot
be 'kosher' for a Jew to hunt."
He pronounced the word "kosher" gingerly, as if to
say, I don't disclaim that I have heard it, but I do not wish
to say it freely, as to arrogate it to myself on the mere
precedent of blood.
I don't mean to disclaim it, but neither do I, for good
or ill, wish to suggest a greater than accidental liaison be-
tween myself and that tradition.
"This is a very rare piece, I believe," the other man
said, "and I'll explain it to you. You are most correct to
state it is non-kosher — for we are enjoined against the
shedding of blood other than quickly, painlessly, with re-
spect, and by a man trained ritually and practically to en-
sure his competence, if I may. So, you are correct. That
hunting is not kosher."
"Nor the hare," Morris said.
"The hare, no," the man from New York said, "al-
though the rabbit is."
"What is the difference," Frank said, "between the
rabbit and the hare?"
The man from New York began his response, and
Frank thought, "I hate myself. Who am I trying to im-
press, or what accomplish, by that 'Jewish' flight of inter-
rogation? God forgive me. No. And what do / care . . . ?"
". . . while the hare" the man continued, "is another
species. Beyond that I cannot say."
14 DAVID MAMET
"Which brings up," Morris said, "the rationality of
"Yes, it might," the other man said. "Yes. It might."
There was a pause.
". . . the hare," Frank said.
"... and there was a discussion," the New York man
said, "at one time, about various animals. The various
animals. Why fish, for example, should be parve, or 'neu-
tral,' if you will, while chickens should be classed as
"I find this ludicrous," Frank thought. "Why do I
". . . and the Rabbis," the man said, "in the Talmud,
discoursed on the goose, as there had been an observation,
at one point, by travelers to some distant land, of geese,
it was said, nesting in trees, and so they undertook to dis-
cuss if the goose could be classed as a fruit." The man
"Distant from where?" Frank said.
"Distant from where . . . ?" The man sought to con-
nect the question to the discussion. Then he nodded.
"Babylon. Palestine, it would be, as it is in the Talmud,
that the travelers would have been distant from. Which is
in the present day Mesopotamia and in that day was
Babylon, and in that year, where would they have traveled
to," he mused, "to see a goose in trees?"
"I loathe this man," Frank thought.
"I hate the whole tradition. An amusement of
THE OLD RELIGION 15
slaves — calls itself philosophy. They might as well have
chosen the advert on a pack of cigarettes and studied it
four thousand years." He looked down. "'Costliest and
most rare of tobaccos. Custom blended, selected, and
cured for your smoking delight — a cigarette of distinc-
"How many times could we find the letter c in here?"
he questioned himself. "And what might that reveal to us
of the workings of the world?"
"This idiot country," he thought.
"Though, on the other hand, what might it mean that
the letter c . . '.'
". . . the rules of . . . that land from which they
came," the New York man droned on.
". . . and how many times, in the course of the day,
do we jerk, if I may, convulsively, and call it 'reason'?"
"But to give up hunting?" Morris said. "That is
The other man shrugged.
"All right, then," Morris said. "Why is the fellow on
the plate permitted?"
The other raised one finger. Frank was filled with
"Like a cartoon I saw," he thought. "Judge on the
bench. Old Jew in the dock. Judge says, 'If you were so
innocent, why did you not explain yourself to the arrest-
ing officer?' Old Jew shrugs. 'I was hendcufft.'"
16 DAVID MAMET
" Yahknehaz," the visitor said. " Y equals (Section K),
which adds up to the order — in Hebrew, the seder — of the
"Yahknehaz. I put it to you, a German speaker, does
it not resemble Jagd den Hase — the Hunting of the Hare?
It does, I say. It does.
And I say it is ingenious to translate the mnemonic
not once but twice — don't you think? Who could forget it?"
He turned to address the table.
"And I assure you," he said, "having heard it once, you
will never forget it till the day you die." He raised his
finger. "And that was the most excellent genius of the
Discussion of the
Life at the lake, of course, was easier.
It was, in its own particular way, more formal than
the life in town. There was more of what he had come to
think of as "social intercourse," which differed com-
pletely from the urban "visiting."
Most nights of the week the wives would sit out on
one another's verandas, or gather at the hotel porch. And
Saturday night — Sunday was "Family Night," sacrosanct
to the reunion with the Husband up from Town — Satur-
day night and Sunday afternoons were given to the round
of formal "Stoppings By," a round of dinners, break-
fasts, parties, and teas offered and returned.
He loved the smell of breakfasts. The clean reek of
18 DAVID MAMET
coffee, as if it went direct to his bowels. That's how it felt
to him, an excitement. Sunday morning, rested, a day free
of work, rising late.
The road was still — the dirt road up from the lake.
The townspeople were all at church, while he slept late
and woke to the feeling of entitlement.
What dearer sound than one's own wife moving care-
fully, to protect one's sleep, one's late sleep— what
"They may say what they like, Morris," he said, "but
the Mortrara boy, the matter of the boy is not a matter of
state. Not," he said, stilling correction, "not that I would
not have it so. I would. But what state, what . . ." He
spread the country honey on his toast and thrilled to the
sound of his own voice, holding forth. So like a man.
"So like a man," Frank thought. "Assured — beyond as-
sured. Didactic, yes, I'm proud to say it. And why not? At
my own table, in front of my friends — who are guests. Yes.
And I speak without apology. It may be truth itself, it
may be trash, yes, though I do not think it is, but it may
be ... it cannot be both, but . . ." His thoughts were inter-
rupted as he came to "my due and prerogative" and was
about to proceed toward "the greater benefits of the
Leader, in this case, the Father, and the Family Gather-
ing, ruled or commanded or led by a Central Figure . . ."
"Where, then, might be the other possibility?" Morris
THE OLD RELIGION 19
"More toast"? his wife said.
"Yes," Frank thought. "I have my place, and she has
hers. Our happiness comes from the limits we impose, both
on each other and on ourselves. Our . . ."
Ruthie brought the platter in, and, as he did every
week, he appreciated the old green platter and thought of
it as "country crockery."
"So refreshing," he thought.
". . . if you would do it at the factory," Morris said.
"What? Do what?" Morris said. "Do what?" And he
looked across the table at his sister, to gather support.
"If I would . . . Yes, yes, yes," Frank said. "Yes. Act
in . . . well, Morris. Morris. Each of us has . . . don't we?
Each . . . wait a moment . . ."
"How I love these discussions," he thought. "And
after breakfast I will have a nap.
"Was ever a man in such a happy position as this?
The coffee? The friends? The breeze from the lake, the
breakfast? No. A man could live all the years allocated to
the earth and not see a more lovely morning."
Soon theyd hear the boats, and the sound of their
neighbors, returning from church, the rumble of the cars,
and the quiet walk of the horses, and the voices of
townspeople, talking low.
They were back, of course, on the rear veranda of the
cabin. On the lake side — why should they not be?
20 DAVID MAMET
"That's where the breeze is," Frank thought. "That is
where the breeze is. And a man who works all week can
stand a day of simple pleasure, away from the mass, the
trouble, and the maintenance of the administration.
Away from the inadequate strength of the last three
shipments of cedar . . . now you've thought of it," he
thought. And, through it all, heard himself speaking.
". . . government of Spain, a sovereign body. But as
they . . . wait: Morris. Wait a moment. Morris . . ."
He sat, brooding over the indulgence due him, and
deprived him, in the termination of his speech. He
waited. Morris subsided.
"Did, I say. Did 'as they thought right.' " There was a
"Subsequent events . . . ," he continued, and raised his
hand to still his friend, who bore the look of one prac-
ticed upon. "Well, if he wanted to speak, he should have
spoken," Frank thought, and continued.
All the while he was conscious of their position on
the back porch, hidden from the road.
"No, we have the right to be here," he thought. "We
are not 'screened' from them, for this is where the porch
was built; and how could they take umbrage that we've
not gone to church? We are not sequestering ourselves, for,
surely, they can smell our breakfast, and that's the end
"Well," Morris said, "I'm going to tell you some-
THE OLD RELIGION 21
thing: They took that child, and the child's gone. How do
you deal with it? You deal with it. How you deal with it,
that's the meaning of philosophy. Fellow says, 'Meaning
of philosophy,' you have to make your own. Now, genera-
tions: 'How many angels dance on the head of a pin?'
One man comes along: 'How big is an angel?' Ah. This is
a new philosophy. Ages go past. Aha. Aha,' so on. New
man says, 'How big is the fin? Mm?" He paused.
". . . hailed as a visionary."
Thoughts about advertising.
"Wells Fargo Never Forgets"
'Wells Fargo Never Forgets.' "Well, that's a slogan, and
all you need to know about that company. How could
you forget it? And who would want to transgress them?
To be outside the law?"
"What does it mean to be outside the law?" Frank
thought. "Might one not take extraordinary pleasure from
it? What must it be to loose the constrictions of the daily
life — to be bound only by those one chose to observe, all
this offset by just one thing: that one was hunted.
"If I could excise the conscience," he thought, "all that
would be left would be the fear — no, it need not be
fear — no, the 'fact.' The 'fact' of being hunted. Like the
THE OLD RELIGION 23
"That would be my life."
The dog had been coming to the porch of the hotel,
Some said it was a wolf; some said a coyote; but both
terms signified only a wild canine, and what was the dif-
ference, he thought, between the terms and the dog, who
lay there dead?
Nothing at all.
The dog's domestication was an illusion. An illusion.
He was as much a beast as the coyote or the wolf. There
was nothing that he would not do — nothing he had not
So, what did it avail to think of him as a "dog"?
If he would come, as he came, night after night, and
steal; if he would kill, as he had killed, the smaller ani-
mals around the hotel; if he would stand and, cornered,
attack, as he had done, when trapped in the barn?
And now he lay shotgunned, dead, in the kitchen
yard, nothing about him domestic.
He was wild. He had lived and died wild, and the rest
was an illusion. Where he found it comfortable, neces-
sary, where he found it convenient, or through lack of
choice, he had lived in a house, and took scraps and
obeyed masters who called it love.
When he turned from them, when he escaped, when
he left, the world was his for the one price: to accept
24 DAVID MAMET
"Could I have as little conscience as the dog?" he
"And now, you see, he traded A for B," Morris said.
"And there you have it?"
Morris walked through the dooryard with Frank.
The women sat on the veranda.
"What do they talk of?" Frank wondered. "And why
has Morris seen fit to comment on the dog? Yes, to assert
And now the dog was dead, and Morris was saying
that, as the dog should have known, his was a losing bat-
tle, and that that not given in love would be redressed in
Was that true? That one's only choice was to obey or
"He would have died in any case," Frank said.
"I don't get you," Morris said.
"Well," Frank said, "it's not deep." They watched the
dog lifted up with a shovel.
A large black man was called out of the kitchen. He
came wiping his hands on a filthy apron. Morris and
Frank walked away
He saw the groundsman gesturing to the dog, and
the black man bobbing his head. He was handed a large
He scooped the dog into it. As Frank looked back,
he saw the man with the shovel walking toward the mar-
gin of the woods.
THE OLD RELIGION 25
"No. That's the wrong tool for the job," he thought,
"if he intends to bury him."
Morris began to speak. "Yeaauh," he said. "Abrams's
"Is he?" Frank said.
Morris nodded. "Boston. Providence. Philadelphia."
"I hope he does well."
"Well, if he does well we do well," Morris said.
"I think it does. To the extent that we are willing to
go up against him."
"What does Jack say?"
"Haven't talked to Jack," Morris said. "But I intend
to. Next time I . . . " He stopped to light his cigar. He
motioned "wait a moment," and he bent over the cigar,
shielding it, through habit, from a wind that did not exist
"Y'ever notice?" he said between puffs. "Y'ever no-
tice, cup the match such that, were it to catch on the book,
it would flare up in your face?" He sighed. ". . . the
"And as many times as I've remarked it, over the years,
still I hold it in the selfsame way. Lighting the seegar."
"Well, you're human," Frank said.
"Ain't it the truth?"
They walked on, and Morris glanced at him, to say,
"Now what the hell was I talking about?"
"Jack Fine," Frank said.
26 DAVID MAMET
"Jack Fine. I said, 'The lifeblood of trade's competi-
tion.' I've always thought so,' Jack said. 'That being the
case,' I said, "come you've never gone into New York?'"
Here Morris paused. He raised his eyebrows to show
that the point of the story'd come.
"'Because,' Jack said, 'I go into a place, I want to know
I am the smartest Jew there.' " Morris shook his head and
grinned. Frank grinned.
"Yessir," Morris said, "lifeblood of trade." They
"Things the factory?" he said.
Frank looked to gauge the intent of the question. He
saw nothing, and shrugged. "Up six percent, twenty-
". . . they say New York?" Morris said.
Frank smiled. "Say very little."
"What have they turned, thankful?" Morris said.
The two men walked on.
"Wells Fargo Never Forgets," Frank thought. And
he could not forget his thought of the shovel and the
"Will I go to my grave," he thought, "with this up-
permost in my mind, each moment of the day?"
In the courtroom, Frank heard the Judge drone on.
And his eyes rested on the carved piece of denticulation
THE OLD RELIGION 27
in the cornice in the corner of the room. Soft, buttery
wood, brown and, for some reason which he could not
plumb but for which he was thankful, restful.
His gaze slipped, more and more now, to that point
on the wall. And each time it did, he expected its calma-
tive powers to Ve dissipated; and each time, upon discov-
ery that they had not, he was grateful. But he would not
stop thinking of the shovel and the dog.
"It was the wrong instrument," he thought again.
"Either to carry the dog or to dig a hole — or, still, to dis-
member it. It was a coal shovel," he thought, "for God's
sake. Did the man not know that?"
At the lake.
Morris does card tricks
He looked so serious.
"No," Frank thought, "I will not be taken in by it. No.
It is all a ploy, capitalizing on my human instinct to re-
spect the portentous. There is that in the ordering of his
features which apes the solemn and momentous. So it is
natural I would pay homage to it with still concentration.
"All the same, I know that it's a ploy and, all the
while, his hands are busy while his eyes are still."
Frank lowered his eyes the minutest amount in, as he
thought, a respectable counterfeit of attention or respect.
And he saw the other man's hands were, as he had seen
them last, folded, still, plump, one over the other, and
both over the red deck of cards.
THE OLD RELIGION 29
"But of course he has moved them," Frank thought.
"He moved them in the instant in which he said
"Now!' — when I lifted my eyes to his. I could observe
him now forever and what difference would it make? The
trick has been done."
Morris cleared his throat and Frank raised his eyes.
He saw Morris's wife out of the corner of his eye — smil-
ing, excited, and proud of the man holding the group's
Behind them, by the door to the dining room, a black
waiter stood, a tray of drinks on his palm. Frank saw the
attitude of both respect and non-being in the man's
demeanor. "I am here only when and as you desire me to
be," it said.
And "Poor man," Frank thought. "It must grow tir-
ing. To heft the tray, immobile on his palm, like that;
though, perhaps, they grow used to it."
"I ask you now," Morris said.
"Perhaps it is just a question of balance," Frank
". . . to tell me the name of the card you had chosen."
Frank looked back, behind him.
"The three of spades," Molly said. Morris nodded.
There were ten or twelve people on the porch, gath-
ered before Morris, at his table. The men smoked cigars.
The night wind took the smoke off the porch. Now and
then the wind shifted, bringing back the scent of the
30 DAVID MAMET
trees and, once, the sound of paddles and high laughter
on the lake.
"So still . . . ," Frank thought.
"Three of hearts. Here is the three of hearts!" Morris
He lifted his hands from the pack and fanned the
cards over the table. They were facedown, save the one
card, the three of hearts, which he drew from the pack,
displayed, delighted, to the crowd, and threw, facedown,
on the tabletop.
"No," Frank thought.
Morris looked at the faces on the porch. Two of the
"Yes. What . . . what?" Morris said.
"I . . . Nothing," Molly said.
"What is it?"
"My card was the three of spades," Molly said.
"Three of spades. Not the three of hearts."
Morris, then the rest, looked down at the solitary
card, facedown, to the side of the spread pack.
". . . Your card was the three of spades . . . ," Morris
"Oh, yes," Frank thought, relieved. "Oh, yes. Now she
will turn over the card, and it will have metamorphosed
from the three of hearts to the three of spades. We will
feel happy and relieved. Will we feel angry?
"What if it is not the case, and he has truly chosen
the wrong card? How humiliating: to spend the hours
THE OLD RELIGION 31
one must need in practice — practice to gain the approval
of the crowd — and then to disappoint them. How terri-
ble: to have one's inner soul's longings revealed — 'I burn
to tantalize you. To manipulate you, to control and de-
light you. To lead you in my ways and at my leisure' —
and then to fail. For what would obscure that personal
revelation? Nothing but success."
He heard the crowd draw in its breath, and break out
in laughter and exclamations.
For, of course, the card had transposed. And Morris
sat there, happy, confident, controlled, portraying the
least — but a discernible — measure of humility withal.
"Happy to please. Sorry to've taxed (if I did) your
patience. Sorry to've manipulated you. I hope that you
will find — as I found, for I did not act so without due
deliberation — that the misdirection was worth the result;
and that, finally, I have pleased." That is what he pro-
jected, sitting there.
Frank looked away and saw the waiter, who, similarly,
had reconfigured himself, and whose posture now an-
nounced that he knew the trick was concluded; that
though he did not wish to, and would not, appropriate
any of the group's enjoyment of the performance, he was
quite cognizant — to the limits of the intelligence autho-
rized to him — of its excellence. The waiter let the laugh-
ter and the semi-ironic applause begin to wane and, like
an actor playing the laugh, came forward with the drinks.
The evening passed.
32 DAVID MAMET
Morris and Frank sat by the rail of the veranda.
"It is not cold," Frank thought, "but it will soon be
There was a mist on the lake. The lights behind them
in the hotel were dimmed. They heard the clatter, once,
for an instant, of the last cleanings-up in the hotel
kitchen, then stillness.
The breeze came through in one burst, across the
porch. Then it was gone.
"Yeaauh," Morris said. He sucked at his teeth.
"'Waal, Jedge,'" he said, repeating the punch line, '"if
you was oncet a nigger on a Saady night, you'd never wan'
to be a white man ev' again.' "
The backyard at night
He believed in it as if it were a religion.
For what was it but a mass of land, itself, an aspect
of the imagination, really — for it stretched upon a piece
of paper between here and there, and he said, "Evidently,
all of it must belong to the person who sees that cohe-
sion, who sees that it lies between two oceans. And the
person seeing that should own it, and that person is me."
What did it mean, to own it — to possess or to be-
long to a country?
He often thought of his house. And he delighted in
his philosophical disquisitions on the nature of posses-
sion, and thought, "This is wealth. If I am unafraid to
question my right in my home, then, surely, some merit
should accrue to me, or, if not to me, to the act, an act of
34 DAVID MAMET
bravery. How Jar would I permit the inquiry to go? I do not
know. But how many would have even dared raise the
He rocked in his favorite chair, on the screened
porch, as he looked out at the lawn, where Ruthie was
picking some sort of grass or flower.
He'd had a mock fight with his wife: "We can never
keep the girl out of the garden," he said; and she'd said,
"Well, let her go."
He'd said, "She's a house servant, and what the hell is
she doing out there when she should be working?" —
both happy in the banter of no consequence about a
minor foible of a family member.
One had to be the Chief to have the Chief's
And it felt good to him. It felt good to smoke his
cigar, and let the breeze take it out, through the screen
porch. "The good ones," he thought. "When you
stopped, you could hardly tell that there'd been smok-
ing." They were his well-made, good Havanas. And why
not? Did he not deserve them?
"Yes and no," he thought.
There were poor people in the world. There were
those in pain and oppressed. And, yes, he had worked for
the house, and still worked twelve hours a day, in a falling
market; and who could say, God forbid, that the factory
would not fold, or burn, or some . . .
"You see," he thought, "this is the point of it: There is
THE OLD RELIGION 35
no certainty. None at all. None. We clothe ourselves in
rectitude to hide our shame. Our shame of our lack of
worth. It's all chance. All of it."
He faced the woman in the garden.
"That grass is clean," he thought. "And it's dry, and
I'm sure she's not staining her dress. Lord. Look at her
fat black ass."
He cleared his throat, and rearranged himself on the
He tipped the cigar ash into the smoking stand.
"You do not want to fidget with it, or tap it too
often, as the ash cools the smoke — supposing always that
you have a good cigar. But, on the other hand, why make
a fetish of it?"
". . . as some do," another part of this dialogue ran, a
small, interior portion of his mind speaking up. He
chided it, gently, but with an authority. For was it not
speaking to assess his response?
Could he not as easily respond, "You're damn right,
and it's affectation"? Yes, he could, and then the inter-
locutor would have got his instruction: "Yes. Yes. That is
how we act, and that is the opinion we take. Of men who
act that way." But he did not so respond. He chided that
voice, saying, "Well, I'm sure each acts as he thinks fit";
and another voice, a supportive judge, so to speak, added,
"If they paid for the cigar, what business is it of anyone in
the world how they smoke it?"
But, in his colloquy, he silenced that voice, too, with
36 DAVID MAMET
an understanding but gently dismissive nod, saying, "I
know that you do not take my part to curry favor; and,
in fact, I may share your distaste. But it is to me to dis-
pense reprimands." He smiled to that voice, as if to say,
"As if any were needed between us." He paused. "And I
will not," he thought, "censure the other remark; I will
not. For it is not mine to censure; but, as it may appear
needful, only to 'correct,' which can only be done with
But, saying it all, he hated the men with their too-
long cigar ash, for it invariably ended on their vest, or on
the rug. There was a certain masculinity to it, but, given
the eventual untidiness, he had to see it as a discourteous
And he hated the fact of the Big Cigar being identi-
fied with The Jew. If ever there were an instance of un-
fairness, he thought, that must be it. And were there not
two sides to every issue?
He saw Ruthie begin to straighten up, one palm flat
on the ground, as she pushed herself up from her knees,
panting. "It must be difficult to carry that weight in this
heat," he thought, and was pleased that he found no ad-
mixture of superiority in the thought.
"For, after all, I did not make myself thin. God made
me thin," he thought. And, "What is better than this
breeze?" as the breeze wrapped her cotton dress around
the front of her thighs. "Black Nubian columns," he
THE OLD RELIGION 37
thought, "rounder than worked marble. Like stones
washed in a tide pool."
She turned, carrying the litde flowers, dwarfed in her
left hand, and the breeze tricked the bottom of her hem
into a peak.
She started up the stairs.
"I ... I know, Mist' Frank, I know . . . ," she said, and
She opened the screen door and came onto the
porch. She walked slowly past him, toward the door to
the kitchen. "... I know," she said.
He felt that she felt his smile of indulgence, though
he was not certain that it had broken through on his face.
But he felt she knew it was there. He saw it in the quality
or in the rhythm of her walk, in the timing of her open-
ing of the door, in the way that she let it close. In a mo-
ment he would hear her in there, starting supper.
The heavy woolen jacket
But one is apt to spend a certain portion of one's income
on appearances — perhaps "driven" to spend. This oper-
ation, he thought, is no different than the laborers beer,
or round of beers, at the saloon. No different at all. We
need to establish ourselves, rich and poor. And the poor are
always with us, as the Christians say. Is that not a quote
from the Bible?
As he walked, he thought of the teaching of Christ:
"It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the
needle," and the struggle of the rich to understand this
passage in a way not hurtful to themselves, he thought,
"what a show that is."
"Yes, well, it is said, I have heard it said," he thought,
"that it was said there was a gate in some old city, in
Palestine, in Jerusalem, perhaps — for it is most probably
THE OLD RELIGION 39
just a story, and, as such, we'd just as well set it in the
most prominent place ... In Jerusalem, then," he thought,
"there was a gate, or a turn, or a passage, called 'The
Needle's Eye,' and so, and so, and so ... "
He walked, and meditated on the folly of man.
"Deceive anyone but yourself," he thought.
"What is religion?"
Then there was the allied question of the shirt.
He wore it seldom, but thought of it often.
It hung on a hook by the back door. A heavy woolen
jacket-shirt, which he thought of as a "rough" or "out-
It was gray, with light-green stripes at large intervals.
A shirt for working in the yard.
But he did not work in the yard. That work was done
by Tom or Red, the friends ("common-law husbands," as
he thought of them) of Ruthie.
He wore the shirt perhaps five times in the year, on
the rare cool morning or evening when he'd choose to
walk back into the yard to smoke his cigar. He'd take the
metal chair from the group by the back door, on those
occasions, and retreat the thirty-five yards to the live oak
tree, and sit there and smoke, and there congratulate him-
self on what he felt was an almost bohemian behavior.
Such occasions were always preceded by an inner di-
alogue in which he would adopt two basically conserva-
tive positions and, in yet a third guise, or voice, as
"moderator," bring them into a reasoned accord.
40 DAVID MAMET
"Why should I not simply walk back into the air —
clothed, in fact, 'however — and there, unseen and unsus-
pected, enjoy my cigar? And if I am remarked, then, what
then? Have I not seen men ..."
Here he nodded, in deference to imaginary listeners
who might, absent this obeisance, interpret the coming
phrase, "of my class," as arrogant. He paused. ". . . men
of my class," he continued, "in similar, surely, in undress
surpassing my adoption, or, yes, or say "affectation" of the
lumber jacket? Have I not seen such men, and that fre-
quently, out 'in their yards'?"
Here the opposing voice suggested clothing designed
for the lumber camp was best worn there. And so it
And here, usually, the voice of inanition informed
him that he was walking to his study to smoke, and so he
did, in the sanguine mood. Happy to be possessed of a
liberality sufficient to allow contemplation of the free-
spirited art of philosophy.
And on the rare times when he walked back to the
live oak, that voice's companion spirit spoke, and praised
him for conservatism grounded enough to function
healthily and secure in spite of appearances.
He wore the shirt seldom, but it plagued him all year
For, in his mind, he'd promised it to Ruthie.
He and his wife regularly assembled their cast-off
clothes and passed them to the maid.
THE OLD RELIGION 41
So he'd long wanted to give the shirt to her, as he felt
it mean to hoard an article he used so infrequently.
But when his wife assembled the used clothes — as
she did once or twice a year — he hesitated before adding
his shirt to the pile. He'd argue with himself and, finally,
consign the hated shirt; and, as invariably, return to the
pile later that day, to retrieve it and replace it on the hook
by the back door.
His unspoken vow occurred to him with regularity
sufficient to suggest, when he did think about it, that it
was never out of his thoughts — that he, at any given time
in his life, was involved in two simultaneous occupations:
the matter of the moment, and his battle with self-
loathing over his inability to honor his vow and dispose
of the shirt.
"It stands for all I hate in myself" he thought.
"Another man would burn the cursed thing, and, so
be done with it."
So it was with the other matter of the couch.
"We are plagued," he thought, "with possessions.
Those who have them not yearn for them. Those who
have them yearn, at once, for more and for their freedom
"But there are those," he thought, "worse than I — for
they are not even conscious of the mechanism. They, in
short, live like poor, driven beasts."
The Confederate flag
Now the breeze took the water from the garden hose as
the boy lifted it, the breeze took it, for one brief mo-
ment, into a roostertail in the air. Then the boy brought
it down. What had moved him to lift the hose? "Exuber-
ance, certainly," and, "What a miracle," Frank thought.
"What a blessing the water was."
The flag, however, was heavier. The breeze moved it
hardly at all. Of what material was it? Almost certainly a
canvas. Not new. Weathered, how many years old? He
could not remember when they'd first put it up. Had they
hung it every year? Stars and Bars. The reds faded to a
sort of purple. "Well, the sun will do that," he thought.
And he thought back to the other flags.
"Rags, really. Batde ensigns. If" he thought, "that is
indeed the correct style."
THE OLD RELIGION 43
Battle flags, carried in the Confederate Memorial
"Old men, now. Old men. How could they not be?
So proud. As the town was proud. And why should they
not be?" It was good to have tradition. Who was he to say
it was wrong?
Yes, slavery was wrong. But the War had been fought
over more than slavery. If, in fact, it had been fought over
slavery at all — was it only the Jews who had that earnest
discussion? The rest of the world seemed to ve accepted
this received notion of History. Why should they not?
Theyd fashioned it, and moved on.
But the Jews, as the Jews said, the Jews would worry
it to death, and love the sad irony of the Southern
There were the Jews, celebrating exodus from Egypt,
and free to use the full play of their intellect to probe the
causes, the cures, of the Institution.
"There was economic servitude," as Morris said, "as
severe as bodily indenture. And the position of Southern
merchants, in thrall to the North, unable to . . ."
Every year — it was a family joke — he would start his
speech, and every year he was laughed to a stop, and he
would stop, appreciating the affection in which he was
held. But he would shrug, to say, "However, there is some
merit in my case, which you may see someday," and some-
one would say, "Government intervention is damned
meddling, unless we need them when we call it Human-
44 DAVID MAMET
ity," or some such, and they would play their ritual out
every year. For it assured them that they were home.
And was that not the point of ritual? For what was
going to be settled at the Seder table? At any family con-
clave? The point of worth was the liberty to discuss, and,
beyond that, below that, the solidarity — the joy of being
the same as everyone there, which joy was only under-
lined by their playing at differences.
The argument was their ritual. Others had their ob-
servances, he thought, which defined them, which as-
sured them, for the savagery they feared was not in the
world, as they thought, but in their minds. And who
could grapple with that?
In the kitchen, behind him, were the sounds of sup-
per being cleared away. The last sounds.
Who could grapple with it? he thought. A factory.
Why? Workers. Why? The Wage System. Why? Slavery,
Across the way, the Confederate Flag hung in the
heat. "It drapes down but is not defeated," he thought.
"It hangs stiffly."
And he thought it hung too stiffly — that the mater-
ial, fashioned for wear, did not allow the flag to loft: as
he phrased it to himself, to "wave like a banner."
On his walk to work tomorrow he would see thou-
sands of them. On the homes, in lapel pins, on cars, the
thousand banners in the parade, certainly. And he won-
THE OLD RELIGION 45
dered about the business of the flags. "For any business,"
he thought, "protected by sanctimony should prosper."
"Flags . . . funerals . . ." He searched for a third ex-
Behind him he heard Ruthie putting the last dishes
away, and the clink of the latch of the pantry. Now she
was done. Now he would hear her padding to the stairs
out back, where she would sit and catch her breath.
Now his wife was upstairs. Sitting in bed. Reading.
Now he should go to bed. Now he should lay his cigar
down in the smoking stand to let it go out, and get up
and go to bed.
There was work to do tomorrow. The problems of
the world would keep. And what were they, finally, but a
diversion? We could not know them, he thought. We
spoke of them, if we knew it, simply as entertainment,
he thought, and sighed, and smiled with affection at his
The new couch
At some point it had become important to him to have a
new couch. He had first ignored and then pretended to
ignore his wife's hints about redecorating.
When she raised the subject openly he had resisted
and explained to her that the circumstances of their life
were comfortable and correct, and, in fact, lavish if com-
pared to the median state of man at any time, and at this
particular time in any place that she might mention.
As he spoke on that first occasion, he both knew and
did not know she would eventually prevail. As he became
more comfortable with the duality, he explained it to
himself in this way:
"Though she is wrong, it is fitting that there be cer-
tain aspects of life in which she can prevail.
THE OLD RELIGION 47
"In most of married life she follows my command.
Now equity and common sense — even were there no af-
fection — suggest that I occasionally recognize her
claims. How galling, in fact," he reflected, "to have no
part in life in which one can prevail."
He reminded himself, then, to be gracious, and to
find it in himself truly to ratify her claims, rather than
merely to appear to do so.
"For does she not, by her lights, make these decisions
(as she feels) for our mutual benefit? Yes," he thought.
"Yes, she does — in no way unlike myself — in electing
this or that improvement in favor of our mutual domes-
And so he told her she could redecorate, and was
ashamed of his chagrin when she took his capitulation as
a matter of course, and launched into a recital of plans
which obviously had been not only thought out but well-
nigh implemented long since.
" This is my task," he thought, "not to 'grant,' no, but
to recognize that to grant is, in this, outside of my gift."
And yet he struggled to resist the simultaneous feel-
ings of pride in his very humility and condescension in
the residual conviction that his wife chose to find impor-
tant the right to legislate regarding trivia.
"Yes. After all of it," he thought, and, "This is as it
should be. She is just a woman."
But his thoughts of the changes to come worked on
48 DAVID MAMET
him. And he sat on his leather chair, and looked at his
couch, at the old comfortable couch where he'd lain so
many evenings after work, which cradled him those many
Saturday afternoons when he'd slept, his workweek
He looked across to the couch, and he saw not the
couch but the couch-to-be. And he found he was impa-
The old couch, the old room, looked to him passe.
He found it important to have the new designs com-
pleted and installed, but he could not determine why he
found it so.
"As I attempt to analyze it," he thought, "I recognize
this (I must say) basic, and I could say, 'savage,' need to be
accepted by the community."
Here he made a note on a leaf of his letterhead
The note read:
Advertising must appeal, as is its essential nature, to
the fear that one is to be excluded. It must both
awaken and suggest how to allay this fear.
The heading on the notepaper sheet read, "National
Pencil Company. Atlanta, Georgia."
The voice of the prosecutor dwelt on that word each
time he said it. "How lovely it is" Frank thought, "that
people can communicate so. He does not pause so much
THE OLD RELIGION 49
as inflect, and he does not inflect so much as signify — in a
way which, were we to reproduce and dissect his rhythm
and pronunciation, would be absent. For science cannot
discover it. It is a spirit," he thought. Frank heard the
prosecutor drone on: ". . . that it is usurpation for a
company to descend to the South and to call itself "Na-
Frank smiled, in an experimental trial of the irony.
"And that is what they're going to kill me for."
There was a heavy summer smell, and there was the ques-
tion of the ink.
"You'd think," he thought, "that it would get into the
house and cause mildew, but it is just this side of that;
and if you paid attention, you would know it. In the
smell. That it was laden and wet, but it stopped short of
being harmful, if you had the courage to recognize that
you knew it.
The humidity was not going to harm anything except
your sense of order. And if you were required to pay for
it, you'd pay for it later in the day, in the heat. "Well,
now," he thought, "will that assuage your sense of fair-
ness? For was there not a breeze in the world? Yes. There
was, he thought, as he sat down to breakfast.
THE OLD RELIGION 51
And they said the ribbons in the typewriting ma-
chines would last two or three months. But he wondered,
as they seemed to last longer, if it was a function of the
"What is ink?" he thought. "Some substance which
maintains semi-liquidity sufficient to allow its transfer,
and then dries into a solid state.
"Some dye, in effect, of that description." And could
it not be that the humidity of his city kept the ribbons
moist, kept the ink moist, and could it not be that the
insufficiency of the company's estimate reflected not
the absence of ink at the end of two months but the
desiccation of the ink and ribbon, and that moisten-
ing . . . ?
He nodded at Rose, as she sat. He tried to envision a
remoistening of the typewriter ribbons. How would it
take place? Could one wind and immerse them, and why
was that image, he wondered, not as satisfying as the,
granted, more elaborate scenario of unwinding the spool
to its total length — whatever that might be?" ("What
might that be," he thought, "a hundred yards? Hardly.
Fifty? Twenty, more likely . . .")
"These are the musings," he thought, "of a content
"At twenty yards" — he smiled at the thought —
"some might call me silly. But if the ribbons were strung
building-to-building, in the rain — wouldn't that moisten
52 DAVID MAMET
them? Now, is that idiocy, or an elegant solution? Who
can say?" he thought. "Who could say, who hadn't tried
it? If, finally, if — if moisture was, in fact, the problem.
And here I am, already surpassing their estimate by thirty
"Are these the thoughts," he wondered, "of a miser?"
And he answered himself, "No, no. I don't think so. I
think that it's business, and it's all reducible to that; and if
the care, and foresight, yes, and yes, and dreaming, isn't
business, then I do not know what is.
"The man who invented the wheel. Think of that.
Think of it. How many millennia of placing a free roller
underneath a load. And people dreaming, dreaming, 'If I
could dispense with carrying these rollers: but how?' and
someone, probably, thought of fixing rollers underneath
the load, to be axle and wheel at once. But the genius," he
thought, "the genius . . . and must he not have shivered as
he thought of it, not in triumph, but in fear. In fear: 'Can
it work? How can it work? If it could work, would some-
one not have invented it before?'
"In fear, he must have had the insight, the notion, to
abstract the roller into two 'wheels.' And must he not have
thought: 'Why me?'
"... Why me?" He nodded.
"For, if he was right, then the rest of the tribe was
wrong, and had been wrong for millennia — not to see
THE OLD RELIGION 53
"And then," he thought, "they could not see the obvi-
ous, and . . ."
The double-hinged door banged open, and Ruthie
came in with the coffeepot.
"These are the thoughts of a happy man," he
thought. "Have I tempted fate?" And: "Jesus Christ, this
coffee smells good."
"Starting to turn hot already," he thought, as he left
"Turn hot. Parade. Well, that's as it should be. Price
for everything. Some mornings, in the damp, you feel it
as a coming penance; some mornings as a reprieve."
Already the flags were flying. Up and down his
street. Confederate Flags. He nodded as he walked past
"Everyone has a right," he thought. "Who is to say
he's less misguided than his adversaries?" He thought:
"Any of us. To believe in this or that? When, five years,
ten years, our beliefs change that completely we wonder,
'What can I have meant . . . ?'
"And, of course, it's a religion. The State. Any state,
perhaps; and a good thing, perhaps, at that.
"For how is it different from a company? It is not. It
is a company. A Group of Men. Organized under a set of
Principles which, perhaps they may think — but they are
in error — which will cover all contingencies.
"Now: what do they do when situations arise outside
54 DAVID MAMET
the scope of the Precepts upon which the Concern was
"Good morning, Mrs. Breen," he said.
"Good morning, Mr. Frank. Goin to work?"
"Yes. Off to work. Off to the office."
"Don't miss the parade," she said.
"Oh, no. I wouldn't miss it, I," he said. "You know, I
see it — I can see it from my fifth-floor windows."
"You can't. In the fact'ry?"
"Yes, I can." He smiled. A little piece of Pear Street.
"Yes, indeed, I can."
"Hmm," she said, wagging her head slightly, as to say,
"What do you know . . ."
They stopped there for a moment, and she sighed.
"Going to be warmish," she said.
"Well, I should say so. I'd say it's going to be quite
He tipped his hat and continued down the street.
The Coffee Corner
The two men sat in the Coffee Corner, with their hats
pushed back on their heads.
'"Waal, if they don't, I will,' many would say. And I'm
not sure I would, but I can't discount it. In the right cir-
cumstances. An it's one thing come acrost a thing, you
follow: see a fellow in the act, and stop him . . ." They
"There in the heat, eh . . . ?"
". . . Yeaauh," they said, and nodded.
". . . in the heat. Or even after. Look: I can't discount
it. A man need to see some justice done. 'Ven after. I can
see that. Take out your pistol, bam. A man's got feeling.
'N' I want to tell you something." He hitched his chair
closer to the counter.
56 DAVID MAMET
"All the laws in the world, and all the religion, to one
end: to try to legislate . . ."
". . . uh huh," they said.
"... keep these feelings in check. Well. Fine. You
mizewell ..." He shrugged, and his hand searched the
air for the perfect comparison, the cigarette in the hand
like a part of it, his fingers like yellow morocco leather,
stained by nicotine, the nails huge and cracked. "... you
mizewell . . ."
". . . water in a sieve," a friend said.
He pointed his finger at the friend, to say, "You have
hit it exactly."
"All the laws in the world," he continued, "all the
laws in the world, Jesus Christ himself, in the heat of a
blood passion . . .
"Because, boys, wait a second," he said. "Because what
we are talking about here is Human Nature. And you tell
me that that's not a mystery? And self-control? How
many, you think, s in there armed? Any meetin ? Any . . ."
The others murmured.
. . . mm?
"That's right," a friend said.
". . . 'n you tell me that's not an instance?"
". . . self-control . . ."
". . . waal, I don't know it's stlf-control . . ."
"What is it, then?"
". . . self-"
THE OLD RELIGION 57
"Waal, I'm telling you, you'd listen to me," the man
said, as the other men at the counter waited, as at a long-
watched and long-appreciated comedy turn.
"I think that it is equally a desire. Mm? To be part of a
group. Wait: not to violate . . ."
"... that's right," the other man said.
". . . to . . . hmm? To put the interests of the group be-
". . . before who?"
"That man with a gun. Mm? That man, as you said,
who's out there, who, in the interests of his group, to
which he belongs — or, or, wait a second, to the urge not
to be ostracized, out of the group, that's all right —
refrains from the action, eh, which would ostracize him.
Mm? That's self-control. Or not, as you may choose to
put it. I don't know what it is. You finish your coffee you
c'n tell me."
Frank walked by the Coffee Corner, and he looked in
at the men.
Could it be the desire for the watch which had doomed
As he walked down Hazel Street he wanted to turn
"No," he said. "I can choose or avoid any route that
I wish; and my detour, if one can call it that, is nothing
more than an alternative. An alternative of no greater
length than the original or — "More direct," his mind
supplied. "Not more direct," he responded. "Yes. Perhaps
more direct. Perhaps. Though I do not stipulate it, but
add that the desirability of a route, in this case, can be
judged according to differing criteria: the length of a
route; its ... its . . ."
"Well, yes," another portion of his mind said. "Yes,
We can allow it."
THE OLD RELIGION 59
"Its . . ." he thought, and bowed slightly, as in thanks
for the concession, "its beauty . . ." That was the word al-
lowed him. He nodded.
A cardinal fluttered in the corner of his eye. He
turned to see it, expecting to find it gone. But, no, there
it was, in the tree on Walnut Street. And he walked and
found he was on Main Street and had not, after all,
turned down Rutherford, and he was on Main Street,
walking as he had vowed not to do, and there he was in
front of Winford s, and there was the watch.
"What garbage is man," he thought.
"What a swine I am — although mischance and not
wilfulness took me here. Forgetfulness," he thought, "or
a preoccupation took me here. Although their existence
could be accounted as weakness."
But there was the watch. It sat in its purple-blue vel-
vet box in the window. The inside lid was lined in silk,
imprinted in gold with the letters "Breguet, Paris," and,
beneath that, in small block letters, "For Winford s, At-
It was a full hunter. A slim pocket watch in rose gold.
The case was covered front and back with small diamond
cross-hatchings, which, Mr. Winford had told him, were
known as "diapering."
"Breguet," Winford had said. "Napoleon carried a
Breguet watch at Waterloo." He paused. "And so did
"That a fact?" Frank had said.
60 DAVID MAMET
On two days he had gone in, and Winford had dis-
played the watch: the elegance of the lines, the precision
of the movement, the repeater function, which chimed
the hour, the quarter, and the odd minute when one
pressed the small gold stud.
Frank had never seen a repeater watch up close be-
fore; and when Winford caused it to work, Frank s reac-
tion, as he phrased it to himself, was "like a savage on
seeing an airplane."
The jeweler pressed the stud, and the watch, in a mu-
sical, but by no means effete, tone chimed ten, and then,
in a higher tone, one-two-three; and after a pause, on the
same note, in quicker rhythm, one-two-three-four-five.
"Ten-fifty," Winford said. And Frank felt he had to
check to see if his mouth hung open.
"Full hunter. Gold repeater," Winford said. "Breguet,
Paris. Lucky to get it. Doubt if ten come into the coun-
try this year."
Frank, looking at the watch, felt that his whole char-
acter was revealed. "I stand before that man," he thought,
"unmasked as a grasping, an idolatrous swine."
For, when the watch chimed ten-fifty, and Winford
interpreted the notes, did not Frank extract his perfectly
good, his in fact superb, Illinois from his vest pocket?
Did it not read ten-fifty, and was it not likely and was he
not old enough to know it likely that, had he purchased
the new watch, he would find it inferior to the one he
THE OLD RELIGION 61
"A man with one watch knows the time," he'd quoted
to Winford. "A man with two watches is never sure."
"No, I'd not heard that one before," Winford said. He
waited an amount of time to show respect for Frank's
right of refusal, but not so long as to indicate he thought
the customer less than decisive. He took the watch and
returned it to the box, and the box to the window, and
Frank left the store.
The second time he came, he felt fully within his
It was not excessive to examine at length and on more
than one occasion such an important — not to say
costly — object.
For was that not the point? How could one consider
spending three hundred dollars on a watch?
Although it was a rarity. Although, as Winford deli-
cately observed, it would bid fair to increase in value, al-
though it was a gift or recompense other successful men
awarded themselves in the form of the automobile, the
boat, the second home, the Sporting expedition.
Finally, "Finally," he said to himself, "finally, it was
It was wrong for him to own more than one watch.
For him to spend that money on that watch. It was
wrong. How did he know?
He did not know how he knew. But it was wrong.
Could one construct and defend the opposing argu-
62 DAVID MAMET
Yes. And have it prevail — with any adversary but
oneself. For the unconquerable fact — and he knew it to
be a fact — was it was wrong: he knew it to be wrong.
And he shrugged — less against this self-denial of the
watch than at this new self-knowledge: that there was a
force in the world superior to the individual, and that
that force regulated action in those to whom it appealed.
He could not wish it away.
And here he was, swine that he was, once again on the
sidewalk outside Winford's. He saw the jeweler in the
store, talking to a salesgirl. And the man looked up and
nodded at him.
"Son of a bitch," Frank thought. "Does he mean to
assert he does not care if I buy the watch? Does he think
I do not know his courtesy point by point is nothing other
than the attempt to induce me to purchase it?"
Winford came out of the store, shielding his eyes
against the morning glare.
"Can he mean to accost me," Frank thought, "with
some comment either about or — the more effective (so
he might think) — not about the watch? What other rea-
son or what pretext might he have to come out here?"
Winford was turning the placard in the door from
"Open" to "Closed."
"Going downtown, Mr. Frank?" he said.
"Yes. Down to work. Nice morning."
". . . Working today?"
"Yes. Odds and ends. You're closing?"
THE OLD RELIGION 63
'Half-day. M'morial day. Half-day. Might as well."
'. . . Mm?"
'. . . No business. Not to speak of"
'Everyone downtown, eh?"
'I would think so." He paused. "Down the parade."
As they stood nodding for a moment, they heard the
faint sounds of a band, far away, and particularly of sev-
eral horns warming up.
". . . Yeessssss . . . ," Winford said.
"Wealllup," Frank said. He caught himself as he
started to reach for the watch in his vest. "No," he
thought. He hoped that Winford had not seen what
could be interpreted as a gesture on his part to open di-
alogue about a watch. But Winford was already turned
away, and speaking to the shopgirl, who passed between
him and the half-closed door.
'"Bye, Mr. Winford."
"Good day, Sal," he said.
"Yes," Winford said. "You have a good day, Mr.
Frank nodded and walked on. He heard the sound of
the man stepping back into his shop, and the sound of
the heavy shade being drawn down.
"That's good," Frank thought. "That's needful to
keep the sun off the carpet. Bleach it out quick as you
please." He walked on.
"What a fool I am," he thought.
The fan fluttered the bookmark off his desk. He
watched the bookmark, flat, climbing, and falling, as the
fan swiveled to the other corner of the room.
As it returned, the bookmark fluttered again, and
rose, as if to fly. Then it fell back.
Rogerson's Stationery. 231 Main, Atlanta. Tele-
phone: Maple 231.
Everything for your Office Needs.
And then the fan came back again.
"What would it take," Frank thought, "to flip it
over? What's printed on the reverse? I should know it. It
lists, as I remember," he thought, "various services, vari-
ous goods, which they provide. Quite handy. Simple
but true. One uses a bookmark. If that bookmark adver-
THE OLD RELIGION 65
tises a concern, we think of it each time we see the book-
"Each time," he thought, "the fan returns in much
the same way — making the allowance for the minute but
inevitable wear inside the machine; making allowance,
again, for the small but, I am sure, measurable shift of
the fan along the desk — although it does seem fixed.
Though the foam padding on its base no doubt reduces
to near nil its motion. Even so," he thought, "even so.
Even so. If I left for a period of months, on my return
would I not see the fan had shifted, slightly? If I had
marked its position out, on my departure, would I not
see, upon my return, that change? And if I could not mea-
sure it, would not an absence of years . . ." He cast his
mind ahead, to a return to his office in decades, in cen-
turies, in aeons, until a time when he would not be dis-
appointed to find the fan yet unmoved.
"For it must move," he thought.
"And if it moves, yes, even after the passage of cen-
turies, if the passage of time shows it to have moved, then
it must have been in motion all the time. For a measur-
able jump is nothing save the aggregate of these shifts we
are incompetent to perceive.
"And if the fan moves, then the bookmark must
move. As I watch it, it does not move; it flutters and falls
in what seems to me to be the same space. And, of
course" — he shook his head sadly — "the situation will
66 DAVID MAMET
not and cannot endure as a laboratory experiment." He
shook his head and took a cigar from his humidor and lit
it briskly, looking down at the bookmark, as at a recalci-
trant and willful specimen of organism.
"For change is inevitable," he thought.
"This office cannot endure. Civilizations themselves are
found, buried under aeons of dust — though I do not
conceive how sufficient time could pass, even over a
length of time, granted, which I must find unimaginable,
to obscure a fifteen-story building . . ."
He consigned this thought — the question of the ver-
ity of the proposition that complete civilizations could
be buried in dust — to that quality of things which both
were and were not true.
"How can we hope to know," he thought, "if these
things occur? If, in the very nature of the thing, we can-
not live to see their outcome?
"Nor" he thought, rising forcefully to what he felt
was clearly the true burden of the argument, "nor can we
control all the variables.
"Not only can we not suppose to live for that
amount of time, but I am impotent even to control the
entrance and egress to and from my office. Even should
I say, 'Miss Scholz, I wish no one to enter — even to clean —
for some time.'" He nodded, meaning: "a reasonable re-
" '. . . Neither to disconnect the fan. I wish it to
THE OLD RELIGION 67
He smiled ruefully.
"Is there not, as we know, always that reason, either
ignorant, good-, or ill-willed, to 'interpret' my instruc-
The bookmark skittered across the desk. He looked
for the cause, and found it in the snap of the shade — in
the one burst of breeze through the window.
"No, no, all things must end," he thought. He took
the bookmark and placed it at the open page in the
ledger — the left-hand entry completed. Date: Saturday,
April 24, 19 15. He dipped his pen and added the date of
the next business day, Monday, April 26, at the top of
the right-hand page. He blotted it and closed the ledger.
He pushed it to one side of the desk, then brought it
back and opened it again, and turned the bookmark to
read: "Printing and binding, typist services, paper, ink,
full ledger and bookkeeping services . . ."
He nodded and replaced the bookmark, and closed
The shade snapped again. "Starched sound," he
thought. "Not a thing in the world wrong with that."
He walked to the window and looked down. The
heat smelled, he thought, clean, from the fifth floor.
"'S hot to walk up, but clean at this height," he
The paper clip
"But I could throw the paper clip away," he thought. Why
should I hesitate to save it? And is this a function of ad-
vertising; and, if so, of what is advertising a function?
"For in what way is the paper clip on the letter I've
received different from those in the box? Now," he
thought, "now: if I were the sort of man, or, barring and
not going to that length, if I possessed," he thought, "the
habit" — he grinned — "of keeping the paper clips in the
box in which they arrived — and why should I not, as it's
an attractive box (and, finally, the question is one of util-
ity, which is to say, a man's self-understanding of the
"Many would keep them in the box in which they
came; and it is, arguably, defensibly (as if I required a de-
THE OLD RELIGION 69
fense) more prudent to do so. But, on the other hand, the
box, over time, will wear down through my opening and
closing it. And I assert — as if there were need of an as-
sertion, and as if mere preference or habit (as I said be-
fore) — absent a conscious preference — did not suffice —
"If I kept, as I say, the paper clips in the cardboard
box, would it not, arguably, conduce more toward the
waste of those clips I receive on the mail I receive?
"Would it not, perhaps minimally but nevertheless,
conduce to their waste, as one would then be less inclined
to remove and to put them into a box full of — well, get
on with it [he thought] — those which they did not
And here he relaxed; his inchoate, unacknowledged
thought: "There, I've said it."
"How far we come from ourselves," he thought.
"In the purchase of a receptacle for the clips I supply
the impetus for their reuse. I decrease waste. I increase
the beauty of my desk — but in truth, in all truth and fi-
nally, I do it, all of it, because I want to, and for no rea-
son other or apart from that. And I may say 'it suits me,'
or, 'it suits my sense of fitness', or, 'I find it pleasant,' or I
may retreat one step and refer to the utility — for which I
care not at all; not at all; not one jot — of the box.
"For, yes, small habits are the foundations of large;
and, yes, in a business with small margin the least savings
not only aggregate but . . . but, one may say, the least
70 DAVID MAMET
savings are the only savings. What is there but the 'least
"How often do we move house, purchase new ma-
chinery, or strike new contracts with our suppliers or
with our help?
"No. No. Those things which we call 'small' and
those which we call 'large' are, if we — "
Here he was interrupted, as the girl came in.
She showed him her time card, and he took the black
box out and paid her, and she went away.
"Now," he thought, "I have bent the paper clip into a
shape. I did it semi-consciously, because, I assume, the
action itself was pleasing. And, having begun, I contin-
"Now it is useless. I have fashioned it into nothing
"You went," the prosecutor said.
"You went," he said, "you went down to the base-
ment. Following the girl, you called to her to turn, on some
excuse — no doubt having to do with her pay. For she had
rebuffed, you — had she not? She had rebuffed you — how
many times? And she had learned to shun you. And yet
you called out, and she turned. And you pushed her
down the stairs." He paused. "And ravaged her." He
paused again, and shook his head, slowly. He cleared his
throat. "And ravaged her. And beat her. And you took
Frank looked up at the corner of the room.
The power of advertising
He sat at his desk and looked down at the bag.
"Now, that," he thought, "is good advertising.
"You see that and you remember it. You don't forget
something like that . . . the look of it, nor the message of
it. For it is" — he thought of the word and wondered if
it, in fact, existed, and, in the spirit of the object which
he examined, elected boldly to employ it whether or no.
"It is proclamative," he thought. "Proclamatory. Un-
abashed, and I like it like that."
On the desk was an old bank bag of heavy burlap.
Ten by fifteen inches, the corners reinforced with coarse,
It closed with a drawstring sewn through the short
end, and the drawstring ends drawn through a toggle the
size of a poker chip. When the bag filled, the toggle
72 DAVID MAMET
would be pushed up against the bag, the string would be
knotted tight up against it, and the knot sealed with wax.
The toggle was of ocher gutta-percha. Pressed into it was
the image of a hanged man and the motto "Wells Fargo
"I would believe it," he thought. "I would believe it;
and, were I of a criminal bent, I would choose to exercise
it upon some other concern. That is the power of adver-
tising. To induce or persuade to forgo the process of
deliberation and suggest there is a higher method of
arriving at a solution — a more immediate and a better
method. That is the power of advertising."
The end of the day
And now his day was done. And it was quiet. The parade
had ended, and he was alone.
It occurred to him that, in the office, on those days
when he was alone, when he did his correspondence him-
self, he would always tear, from the sheet, the exact num-
ber of stamps he required.
Alone, on a Sunday, or on a Saturday afternoon, hav-
ing completed his letters, having addressed them and
sealed the envelopes, he would turn to the drawer and re-
move the buff folder which held the sheets of stamps.
He would tear a crenellated block of stamps from the
sheet — up and across, up and across — and when he
turned his attention to paste them on the mail, whether
hed done five or ten or forty letters, he would find he had
torn off that exact number of stamps.
74 DAVID MAMET
It pleased him. And then he would denigrate both his
achievement and his pleasure, thinking, "This is not, as I
would enjoy it, a sign of 'election,' no; but merely the log-
ical expression of a skill practiced so many times as to've
"It would be remarkable," he thought, "if, on the
other hand, I were not able, unconsciously, to approxi-
mate the number of stamps.
"Yes, yes. Yes, but," a small voice said, "you've not ap-
proximated it. You have hit it exactly. As you do each
time you perform the task." It was this thought that
nagged him, each time he approached the moment in the
day when he would take out the buff folder.
"I know I can do it," he thought, "if and as long as I
am 'unconscious' of it. And I know I can do it even con-
scious of the process; but I do not know if, conscious of
the process and conscious of my pleasure — in that way
which only can be vanity, which only can be idolatry (for
have I not said that I do not 'approximate' but exactly ful-
fil the correct number? do I not discount my ability as
quite normal and, at the same time, reserve the right to
feel it ... to feel it . . ." Here a small descant in his mind
added the words with which he was loath to comfort
himself: "a sign of election". . .) "I do not know if in that
case I can do it."
Sometimes he would will the number of stamps not
to correspond with the number of envelopes. Infre-
quently this would occur.
THE OLD RELIGION 75
Then again, he would berate himself for the pleasure
"As if," he thought, "I now reward myself for con-
triving not merely achievement but randomness."
Finally, the meaning of the ceremony, he thought,
was this: It came at the end of a perfect time.
After a Saturday afternoon or a Sunday alone, or vir-
tually alone, inside his office, in the factory — able to
catch up on the elusive ends of the business, able to put
his house in order. Somewhat at his leisure. Like a chef,
he thought, perhaps: after the banquet. Ordering his
He cherished his time alone in the office. He felt it
was a reward, a Sabbath, even though he was at work.
He felt a sort of pleasant omnipotence in doing his
own correspondence. In it he found leisure to contem-
plate and power to express.
In it he stemmed the torrent of business and diverted
it and made it run to a purpose and to his pace. And it
all ran though him.
And if he chose to rest, to look out of his window,
to smoke a cigar, to lie down on the couch and smoke a
cigar into the heat, his coat on a hanger in the press . . .
If he rested the back of his shoes, above the heels, on
the arm of the couch, his head low, the ashtray next to
him, close by his left hand, down on the rug, his mind
drifting to thoughts of that girl, of any girl, of girls like
those in the mural in the club: high breasts, small boyish
76 DAVID MAMET
hips, no waist which could not be encompassed by his
hands . . . And once he woke with a start, in a fantasy of
fire, his back wet with the sweat of a too-deep summer
Well, then, the thing for that, as he well knew, the
universal tonic, was iced coffee. And thank God for
someone to run for it.
What could be better than iced coffee, with just the
merest drop of cream? And how he pitied those "un-
weaned," as he thought of it, who took it one part coffee
to two parts milk.
Iced coffee. Just a drop of cream. No sugar, thank
you, to exacerbate the heat of the day,* a wet towel to
wipe his neck, and then a dry one. The handkerchief
from the side pocket folded in under the shirt collar.
Then the coffee would come, and then he would
have a cigarette, back at his desk, his correspondence al-
It was a reward to order it into the stacks, the one of
envelopes, the other of letters, then to reduce the two to
One stack of correspondence, waiting for the stamps.
And then the coda of the stamps. For the brief, anx-
ious, but enjoyable byplay was just a leave-taking, was it
not? Yes, he thought, it was. After which he would have
to go home.
He had heard the Yiddish curse "May you be involved in
a lawsuit when you're right." And now he understood it.
He saw that the wrong side could and would allege
anything, unbounded by the laws of probability or rea-
son, while the legitimately injured side, the wrongly ac-
cused, could only allege the undramatic fact of its injury
or innocence. The contest, the trial, was, finally, an enter-
tainment, or a trial-by-entertainment, and that he, as the
accused, no more enjoyed the presumption of innocence
than had any unpopular man at any time.
The trial, in his case, was an inversion of the for-
mula: he was, more than assumed, more than adjudged
(denied the possibility of error carried by that form), he
was known to be guilty. He was guilty, and the trial existed
78 DAVID MAMET
to prolong his entertaining punishment, and to ratify
that entertainment under another name.
The Puritan Ethic led to the American hypocrisy of
disavowing the need of pleasure. So pleasurable acts were
called by the name of Service to Some Higher Good,
their pleasurable nature denied, and that denial defended
to the last — the gauge of a public act's pleasurable com-
ponent, in fact, could be said to be the extent to which its
performance was decried as onerous.
In 1854 a Jewish child in Bologna fell ill. His
Catholic nurse, concerned for his immortal soul, secretly
The nurse confessed to her priest, and the Catholic
hierarchy heard of the baptism. The boy recovered, but
the Bishopric of Bologna, enraged that a now Christian
child was being raised by Jews, had the boy kidnapped
and hidden away.
No pressure from the family, from friends, from the
world Jewish community, from foreign heads of state,
could cause the Church to produce the boy.
Even to assert the family's "right" was to give cre-
dence to an opposing view. But if there were not an op-
posing view, the kidnapping would have been stripped of
its value as entertainment and stood simply as an obscene
And now he knew the meaning of the curse.
The whir of the fan when the girl had stood there be-
came confused with other memory.
The Rabbi had said that as one studies the Torah, as
one reads the same portions at the same times of the
year, year after year, one sees in them a change; but, as
they do not change, it must be we who change.
But each time he thought of the Saturday he thought
of the girl, and it was always the same — the whir of the
fan blowing the dress as she stood there and asked for her
It blew the dress and, with it, an odor of uncleanli-
And was the smell magnified by time?
For, at the time, he'd thought how he'd be hard-
80 DAVID MAMET
pressed to have sex with her, as she smelled unclean. That
was the factor, then, perhaps, which buried the memory;
for, when they'd come and asked him "Do you know this
girl?" he said that he did not.
And when they said, "She works on the line," he had
"There are so many girls here," he said.
"Waal, this one is exceptionally pretty."
"Is she?" he said; and shrugged. Not to say, "I am be-
yond that," but, he felt at the time, noncommittally; not
to say, "You find her so. Perhaps I, being different from
you, may not." No.
And not at all servile, no. Not saying, "You know
that I cannot notice your young women," but, he
thought, as he looked back, measured, correct, circum-
spect, not unmindful that it was a — as he put it to him-
self — "difficult subject," but with a certain dignity, he
thought — rightly asserting his right not to be interested.
"She was quite pretty," the policeman had said — as if
to assert, therefore, what, he thought: that any man
would rape and kill her?
No. He had shrugged. And he had not remembered
Why had he been disgusted at her smell? Why had
he, in fact, noticed her? For she was not that pretty.
"Their notions of beauty," he thought, "are cheap.
How could they not be? (To forgive them.)"
THE OLD RELIGION 81
But they'd seen it, he realized later. They'd seen it, in
fact, before he had. In that shrug. He had not consciously
remembered her, but they had read intuited processes
hidden from his very consciousness. Could that be?
Yes. He'd remembered her. Yes. Later. And he'd told
them all. Everything except the smell.
Except her smell. For he knew, that would be to in-
vite them to hang him.
Her dress looked so limp, so greasy, blown by the
The yellow ribbon tied to the fan fluttered. It was
cleaner than her lank blue dress; and why the hell was she
looking at him? He'd paid her. Why did she hesitate?
What was it to him that she did? And was he responsible
for every girl in the plant?
They'd said he had a reputation as a lecher. One girl
and then another had reported overtures he'd made.
Events which never happened in the world. But they were
made so real.
"Their stories are so real," he thought. "And they
would die the death before they would disclaim them. I
know they would. They would go to the rack before they
"You, you the Flower of Chivalry. You who've come
forth Risking All," the prosecutor had said. Frank
snorted, shaking his head at the memory.
What was it they'd risked, who had gained sympathy
and notoriety by their lies?
82 DAVID MAMET
"He came up to me one Saady, and we were going
out, by the second floor, and he ast me to stay. So my
girlfriends went down, and I thought maybe he wannit to
tell me he was going to move me up the line, 'cause I been
working there the sixteen months, an' they said after
twelve months there if you was doin' good they'd move
you. But nobody come to me. An' I don't know why,
'cause I'm doin a good job. So I thought he was goin to
say that they were movin' me, when he ast me to stay."
And here she'd put her head down.
Then the Judge, with more concern than Frank had
ever heard in a man's voice, as if the whole of the unsure
advance over savagery were concentrated in those words,
said, "Please continue," then he sighed once and, again,
said, "... please."
She'd raised her head. Brave, quiet, noble — who
would not be struck by her courage, he wondered, except
the man who was being murdered by her lie.
"Am I going mad?" Frank thought, remembering.
"Well, no. Well, no. It's better. I am better. When I sat
there though . . ." And, at the thought, he was, once
again, in that courtroom; as he went back every day. As in
a fever dream.
He was once again in that courtroom, and sur-
rounded by his enemies, his mind destroying him as he
"Not that they're lying," he'd thought, "and not that
THE OLD RELIGION 83
I'm going to die, but that no one will ever know. No one
will ever know. No one will ever know," he'd thought. As
they'd applauded her. As she stepped down, and the
judge cried for silence, and the bailiff cried for silence,
but the courtroom knew they did not mean it.
"They are linked by the unspoken bond. Even in
this," he thought. "Even in this so-small ritual, where
each knows that the other knows, and they are delighted
by their part in the play. Delighted by that unanimity.
"The poor fucking swine."
He heard the roaring in his ears, in the courtroom.
The timbre changed, as the cheering spectators tried to
follow the girl, Alice, the factory girl, as she walked out
of the court; and then the crowds out in the corridor
began to cheer her, then the crowds on the street. And he
could picture her face, her mask of controlled emotion,
her humility, her performance of unassuming virtue, of
simple honor, unworthy of their accolade but accepting
it, in understanding that it was awarded her not for her-
self but as a representative of Southern Womanhood.
"Yes. As that," she said, in her step, in her averted
gaze, in her demeanor. "As that, yes, I will accept it."
And he could not rise from his seat and kill her —
that was the injustice — who'd killed him. Who'd walked
him that much closer to his death through her perjury.
He could not burst down the aisle, duck under the arms
of the sheriffs, and move through the crowd in the halls.
84 DAVID MAMET
Perhaps he could, scurrying like a rat, so quick as to es-
cape their notice, down the corridors, down the stairs, on
to the street, where he would find the slut surrounded —
wait, but wait, then he'd be free: turning the other way, he
could run to the wharves, onto a ship, or out into the
country. . . .
A runaway slave's life beckoned to him. He'd sleep in
the lofts of barns, and eat — whatever was it that he'd eat?
Well, he'd discover it, as he lived. As he lived that life he
would discover how to live it. He was small and he was
quick and light, and now those attributes would work to
He didn't need much. He needed so little, really. That
was his secret. That was his strength.
Waiting for his attorney
And there, of course, was the fear of what "they" would
"They" being the Jews more than the Christians; for
the Christians would say anything in any case; and, as
much as one might care for their opinion, there was
nothing one could do to influence it.
"They look at us," he thought, "like we think about
the Etruscans: a strange people about whom we know
"The brand of religion you practice" — he framed
his pronouncement in his mind — "can only be called
"You are backstreet Jews."
He saw, in his mind, their reaction — the reaction of
86 DAVID MAMET
his fellow Jews, as he preached to them — mild and won-
dering, waiting, as if there were to be a predicate; "you
are backstreet Jews," and as they found there was none,
they looked away, catching one another's eyes to com-
ment, as on an announcement that fire was hot.
"And in Leviticus it threatens desolation to the land
if the Jews do not follow their commandments. And it
says that in that desolation the land will enjoy those
Sabbaths that the arrogant denied it. Could that not be
applied," he thought, " — as I'm sure it was applied,
and could say if I knew the Talmud, if I knew the Com-
mentators — to the weekly Sabbath? He Who Does Not
Keep the Sabbath being brought low and, so, forced to
He hated the set of his face when he had had and was
conscious of having had what he felt was a profound
For his face relaxed and his eyes looked down and
aside, and when he felt his face so conform when he was
conscious that he had been taken, for a moment, away
from himself, he was pleased.
He felt his face, in this attitude, betrayed his new ap-
proach to wisdom, and he suspected that it made him
handsome. Momentarily handsome, and he hated him-
self for the suspicion and for his enjoyment of it.
"Who am I to approach wisdom, and how can it be
THE OLD RELIGION 87
wisdom if it is, on the instant, perverted into vanity.
How weak I am. How sickeningly weak I am.
"Even, as I do, even to feel superior to the . . ." He
wagged his head from one side to the other, thinking,
"the relatives." ". . . Who am I to feel this superiority?"
"Now: study," he thought. "As they say, 'Who rises re-
freshed from his prayers, his prayers have been answered.'
I wished for a Breguet watch. In a gold case. With my ini-
tials worked on the case. And I spoke of it. And my wife
bought it for me. The happiness of my possession was
marred by the thought that I had angled for it. For it was
not a surprise, rather an anticipated fulfillment or disap-
pointment, so how could I look to it without feelings of
either greed or anger? I contrived it. I suffered for it. Did
the watch keep better time than the Illinois? Or than the
dollar Ingersoll? Yes. And then so what? For whenever I
looked at it, what could I think, save, 'This is the watch I
pestered a woman for?
'Of such, and of such quality,' I would look at it and
think, 'that it never can decay. This is the watch I will
have till I die. This is, in effect, my watch, and I pushed for
it and I achieved it and now it is mine.'
"And now it is gone. They might have told me not to
wear it to the jail. My wife might have had it. She might
have had it now, and enclosed it in a glass bell on a stand.
On an easel. Or hanging, yes . . ." He congratulated him-
self for not shrinking from the thought. "All right, the
word is gallows,' and a watch, like anything else, can be
suspended. And why, in the name of Christ, should I
have worn it at the trial? And why have glanced at it, those
how many times a day? For what?
"And yet. And yet. And, God knows, yet I could not
help myself- — as if there were going to be an end of it.
When there was never an end of it And yet I wore that
watch. As if the chain were armor.
"And I wore it on the Sabbath. And I worked on the
Sabbath, and I broke the Sabbath. What does it excuse
me that thousands also did, that my relatives did, or that
we never kept the Sabbath. Since our family — "
He looked up at the sound of the wooden door
down the corridor, the old green door to the guards sta-
tion, as it opened.
He nodded. Out there were the stove and the
coffeepot and the deal table.
And the room was clean and pleasant.
He wondered if the guards knew how pleasant it was.
There was an odor to it. There was a smell of coffee,
and he imagined he could almost smell the leather of the
new briefcase — and hear it squeak — as his lawyer came
down the corridor.
The prosecutor rose to his feet. He lowered his head, and
his cheeks moved for a moment, as if he were sucking
something out of his teeth. He turned to the jury:
"Let us expatiate upon the properties," he said, "of
the Black Race. And let us begin with the words of
Scripture. For do we not find it written in Leviticus that
if thy servant love thee, thou shall put an awl through his
ear, binding him to the door. And bind him, as it were, to
your house for life?
"And I ask you: Why would one submit to that?
"And I tell you the answer you know, which is that it
is better than the alternative. Which, to the nigro mind,
is not to be conceived.
"To the mind of one bred, nay, born to be a slave, the
90 DAVID MAMET
alternative is not to be conceived. And you know it as
well as me.
". . . to venture into the world — a foreign world —
unequipped, scorned, no, not for what one is. but for the
actions one has taken.
"I say, further, not for the actions presumption, but for
its inevitable discohesion: resulting in misery for black and
white alike, but — and as you hear me I know you will
nod with me and sorrow with me — infinitely more op-
pressive to the black.
"To leave his state? To bear the just wrath of a city
disordered — through caprice? Why? Who would desire
to do that?
"And, again, we know it's said if every man would act
in his best interest this would be paradise on earth.
"And we can, yes, envision nigros who would,
through folly, through, as I have said, caprice, would 'quit
their masters house.'
"We have experienced it. And what is the in-
evitable . . ."
"Why can I not cease worrying about the factory?"
Frank thought. "How strange I am. No, I am a vile man.
Incapable of concentrating. Mr. Fowler goes on hours at
a stretch, and here I am, brooding over the price of cedar
blanks. Price of cedar be damned. I will think of some-
thing else. I will think of the Brooklyn Zoologic Gar-
dens, and the behavior of the apes. And I will think how
THE OLD RELIGION 91
no one can say anything novel about them. ..." His face
brightened. "Except that!" he thought. "And Morris said
no one could say a thing illuminating or novel about the
apes, and here I have."
"... and look at him," he heard the prosecutor say, and
he turned his head to see the object being indicated, and
he saw the whole courtroom staring at him, and he felt
the grin on his face, and knew that Fowler s next sentence
would be an indictment of that grin.
"... while we sit here, gentlemen . . ." He saw the ju-
rors nodding. ". . . and he . . . this man," the prosecutor
said, "who took that girl, a working girl, a Southern girl,
who wanted nothing more nor better than to earn her
bread, and serve her family; who took her, and debauched
her, and killed her, and hid the evidence of the crime; who
had the gall ... to blame a nigro, yes, a nigro, mark you,
also entrusted to his care; who, by his very presence, and I
use the word, gentlemen, by his presence as a guest in our
state, and our region, might have, in humility, might have
deemed himself held to a higher . . ."
"No, but he is good at it," Frank thought. "Who could
deny him that?"
Fowler droned on, and Frank endeavored to compose
his face. "To look away is to acknowledge guilt; to look
at them would arouse their anger; to stare ahead might
seem to acquiesce in the punishment."
"... Yes, you may well be confused," he heard the
92 DAVID MAMET
prosecutor say. "Indeed you may. In what may be the first
display of human behavior we have seen from you, since
the inception of . . ."
"The apes. The factory, the cedar blanks, Aunt
Bess . . ."
The room stank of sweat and tobacco. The air was
still as stone. The prosecutors word fell heavily, one by
one. Frank sat like an animal.
"If he were innocent, he would rise up and kill the
fellow," one of the reporters thought. "A man would. I
And, one step and then the next. Frank had sat in the
court, trusting, as all his family trusted, in some plan or
expertise, some strategy or talent, which would, at the
end, reveal the prosecution for the monstrous savage lie
But day after day, they argued over the moment that
he'd left the house, the identity of the Boy on the Bicycle,
the time he had seen Mrs. Breen, and what he had said to
her about the parade.
And Frank sat there, thinking, "Yes. This is bad. It's
pointless. In each moment the central fact of the case is
ignored, the jury is left gazing at me as at a monster. But
I must sit here and let justice take its course. For there is
a progression, a ritual torment, which, for some reason, it
94 DAVID MAMET
has pleased God to spare me until this point. And if it is
my lot to endure the trial, I will do so — as others who
were unjustly accused have done before me. I am no bet-
ter than they. And if it is an initiation — if I can think of
it as such — to discover my Manhood, then I will en-
deavor to accept it as such."
Here his thoughts would resolve themselves into the
theme of "Americanism." He would seek and find com-
fort in his community with both the Judge and the ac-
cusers, all connected in the name of Americanism. In the
unavoidably impure attempt to find the truth through
"For if I cease to think thus, then I will go mad," he
And he persevered, day after day. Striving, with all his
will, not to look at his watch.
While the prosecutor pointed to him, saying, "There
he sits, the monster. Look at him: impassive. No grief. No
feeling. Not a shade of either remorse or shame upon his
face. Barely cognizant of the tragedy he has wrought."
And Frank would turn to face the jury, and see them
nodding, unconsciously, in agreement. Consumed in this
"thing," as he phrased it to himself- — this fervor of recti-
They looked at him — increasingly, as the trial
progressed — with revulsion; and, worse, with self-
congratulation for their ability to put their revulsion
THE OLD RELIGION 95
They were murdering him.
And how they loved Jim and his testimony.
"Nawsuh, I nevah . . ."
"Did you write that note . . . ?"
"Naw suh. 'F I could write, I wun't be workin' down
the fact ry, you know. Temporary, though I'm glad to . . ."
Here he looked and saw, as he knew he would, the
jury nodding in support of Jim's portrayal of the Happy
Slave; and, at this particular point, in anticipation, then
in approbation, of his ritual injection of submission.
". . . so glad to have the job . . ."
"Yes, Jim," they thought, "and this is how a society
runs. When each is grateful for his place, and acts ac-
cordingly. Will the Strong not nurture the Weak? The
White not lead the Black . . . ?
Then who was the outsider? The Kike. The "Nigger
to the nth degree" — as the paper had called him — who
should have known better, having been granted the
almost-more-than-provisional status of a White Man.
But, yes, they could see it now. In his eyes — to which the
papers so often referred. His feral eyes, as they said. His
blank look. His lack of remorse. What contrast with this
specimen of contrition, this, finally, this man, this Jim,
who, though inferior in race, in intellect, in gifts, in sta-
tus, still was the equal of all in his dedication to the idea of
". . . and when . . ." Jim paused, and Frank saw the
lawyers, the Judge, the courtroom, the world, in effect,
96 DAVID MAMET
wait. Patient. Endorsing him: "Yes, Jim, Yes. We know
that it is difficult; and we know, even with our dispensation,
that your natural courtesy — not to say your laudable un-
derstanding of your place — inhibits the mention of the
White Woman. Yes, but we wait."
". . . and when . . ." Here Jim paused again, his face a
mask of humility and confusion. "People," it said, "I am
"And I know you would bid me continue. And I
would please you and do my duty. But I am moved by
grief. And know how unfitting, how insolent, how near-
to-obscene it would be for me to deign to display my
grief for a White Woman. I am lost. Help me."
In memory, here, Frank half saw the prosecutor go to
Jim and lay his arm around his shoulder.
It had not actually occurred, but the feeling was so
strong in the room, Frank was sure he was not the only
spectator who had misremembered it. Jim then contin-
ued speaking of the girl. Of how he had seen her, in the
week previous, "having soft conversation" with Frank, in
the narrow corridor outside the shipping area. Of how
Frank advanced and how she retreated, shaking her head.
Was there ever such a man?
The trial progresses
How could they say Jim could not write?
Frank and his attorney had told the prosecution of
the existence of a note from Jim asking for reemploy-
ment and they had searched the office, the files, but could
find no such note.
Even in its absence, how could the prosecution found
its case upon a negative proposition: "No one has seen
Jim write, so he cannot write"? But Frank had seen him
write, as had his assistants in the office. One by one they
were deposed; and one by one denied the existence of
Jim's application; not "I do not recall ever seeing such a
note," but, "No. It never existed."
It never existed? How, then, did Frank communicate
98 DAVID MAMET
with Jim, when Jim requested reemployment? They'd all
testified he had not come into the office. How did they
communicate? He wrote and Jim wrote back.
This was the point Frank tried to make in his con-
ference with his attorney. "Ask them that," he said, and,
always, the man looked down and away, indicating,
"Please do not tell me how to run my affairs. I do not
wish to embarrass you by pointing out your ignorance of
But the man was a fool.
Frank saw, now, that that which he had taken for
courage was foolhardiness.The attorney had no desire to
see Frank acquitted. An acquittal would subject him to
the rage of the city. No. He wished to be seen to have
made a valiant effort. He wished to have upheld, at great
personal cost, a principle — the right to a fair trial.
"What a fool. What a fool I was," Frank thought.
"Why did I enter into this charade? What could the man
have possibly gained from my release? "The fees were poor,
and had he 'won,' they might have been his last.
"The swine," he thought, "I can see him now, in his
clubs, in his haunts.
'"That was a fine thing you did . . .' And the man
deprecating it. With a sad shake of the head, to indicate
'a sad business.'
"A vile business, but for the principle involved. And
THE OLD RELIGION 99
the interlocutor reiterating, 'No. A fine thing you did.'
He could see both men. In some club. On some ve-
randa. Bursting with self-congratulation. Calling the evil
good. How like the Christian. How like the Christian, he
Of course he'd looked at the girl. How could he not? He
was a man. But that was what they'd questioned at the
Fowler had talked of "rumors of his deformity and
his perversion." What were these rumors? They had not
existed until Fowler called them into being.
Then the girls had come forth and alleged, "He
could not do it like other men could," and they said,
". . . his deformity," two of the three stumbling on the
In what was it supposed to consist? This disgusting,
undescribed, and indescribable malformation? That, as
the others did, he had ungovernable sexual tastes but, un-
like them, was incapable of satisfying them? That he, the
THE OLD RELIGION 101
Jew, was the same ravening lecher as the black, but his
"performance," unlike that of the black in the Southern
fiction, was pathetic — that he was, in fact, a eunuch.
Was that why he'd been elected as the killer, in pref-
erence to the sweeper, Jim, who, it was clear, had killed
For Jim came in a dead man already. He was tried
and convicted through proximity to the crime, and by the
color of his skin — already sentenced absent the evidence,
which served not to indict but merely to confirm and to
add the verdict of reason to that of race prejudice.
Jim was already dead. He'd raped and killed the girl,
and afterwards scrawled, "I rite this while big blk mans
has his way wid me."
"Why would a black man," the attorney prosecuting
had said, "why would a black man," he said, "try to evade
suspicion by writing a note pointing to himself . . . ?"
"Why would a man want to kill?' the defense attor-
ney said. "The note is false. . . ."
"Are you suggesting," Fowler said, "that this nigger,
the sweeper, as in a chess game, thinking three moves ahead,
that the man little more than an animal resolved, 'I will
kill, I will molest and kill ...'?"
Here the gallery and the jury and the judge inclined
their heads somewhat as they always did at this point in
the narrative, in respect for the dead, in solidarity with
each other and with the generations past who had upheld
102 DAVID MAMET
the code, the amorphous code, the well-nigh or perhaps
completely nonexistent code, to which they felt that they
"What is this code?" Frank thought, as the prosecu-
tion droned on in that cadence, the substance of which
never failed to entrance and delight his listeners.
". . . and what is that right?" he thought. "What is
that sweetness of which there is no surfeit?" Frank thought.
"It is rectitude."
". . . to her death — to her death, I say — and wrote a
note? Had the presence of mind, barring — barring, mind
you — the ludicrous notion that he had the foresight, that
he had the presence of mind, to forge a chain of causa-
tion whereby we would think, 'It cannot be Jim did the
deed. Why? Because a note exists, written by the girl, and
naming Jim . . .' But, of course, Gentlemen, the note is a
forgery; and the defendant wrote the note. And so . . ."
Franks mind drifted. "What folly the law is," he
thought. "What might take its place? Perhaps it exists to
prepare us for loss. And for sorrow — the clean promise
of which becomes almost welcome after the obscene
travesty of the law. And if we are to have cruelty, might
we not call it by its name?"
And he saw that for which he wished, that for which
he wished in the law was not "common sense" but "par-
"I understand rage," he thought. "How comfortable
THE OLD RELIGION 103
to have it endorsed by one's peers. How lovely. That the
state, that the community, that one's home and religion,
all say, "Go forth and kill. In the name of God.' What
have they done else these two thousand years," he
thought, "with their prattle of 'progress,' of 'the future,'
of 'change,' of 'America'? What swine, what fiends, what
hypocrites — this American Religion."
". . . he wanted me to do it with him," the factory girl
had said, "and he made me go into the other room with
him, and he told me I didn't do it with him, I'd lose my
job, but when we got there, he took down his things . . .
but he . . ." And here she paused, and when the court-
room was cleared of the women spectators, and when the
judge and the jury and the prosecutor all leaned forward,
all quite, as solemn as only prurience endorsed can be, all
that she would say was, "He was formed different."
He was formed different. She would say no more.
And she wept.
Then they would look at him — proud, vehemently
proud of their restraint in not falling upon him then and
there and having his life.
Formed different, she said. And the subsequently
scheduled medical examination had the city rapt, waiting
It was the grossness of his wife, he knew, which upset
them. Her weight. Well, that was one of life's tragedies.
And it was not — for he thought of it at length — that
the association with the animal prompted the compari-
son; no, he corrected himself, it may have, indeed,
prompted it, but it was not at the core; for they looked like
pigs, the men with their pink, rusty, milk-colored skins,
and their necks growing out over their collars. They
looked like pigs, with their short noses and their cheeks
puffed out, and they were fat.
They were fat, with their bellies dropping out and
down over the belt, and vast legs, and the slow way that they
turned their heads; who considered themselves full of
self-restraint (you saw it in their eyes), who turned their
heads so slowly as he passed, to say, "Yes. I see you. And
THE OLD RELIGION 105
of their own; not "trim,'
own group at the Coffee
None of it. He was
I won't show that I judge you — though you are a fiend."
Full of that vaunted Southern self-respect.
And there was that which was attractive in it. There
was that in it he could respect, if it were not so false. So
He saw it was directed at his wife also. That they
looked at her as they would at a sow. And, then, what
For they could not see their lack of fastidiousness,
and accounted his fastidiousness priggish or inverted —
his dress, his figure; not "dapper," as in some favored one
' not "slight," not, if one of their
Corner, "bantam," "Banty."
the invert who did what with
that gross woman behind him, behind the rail, sitting
and crying. Crying at ary hour of the day — at this de-
scription, that assertion, from the fatigue, God knows
what, from the anxiety, from shame.
At any moment. Continually, preternaturally. Weeping.
As the crowd laughed at her, as if she were some animal.
How could they laugh at her? Who spoke of South-
ern Womanhood? They were the animals.
And he supposed it was a blessing, that she was not
what they, if it went thjit way, would call attractive, se-
ductive, oriental, voluptuous — for what would they not
make of that, who were so interested in sex, in his sex. In
his penis, in his habits. As if he were a specimen captured
by savages who'd never seen a white man. .
If it had been the watch, could it not arguably have been
the cardinal? And if it had been one or the other, did that
not argue a plan; and, if a plan, then a reason for his trial?
Or, if he'd been chosen at random, then, at least, rea-
son behind a plan in which he had been caught by acci-
And if there was that force sufficient to make such a
plan — given he'd been ensnared through no fault or
through no error of his own — would that not counsel
submission to a power of such magnitude?
Submission, possibly, but not acquiescence, he thought,
unless one could discern the reason, or the good, in it;
and, even if so, why me, he thought, rather than another?
Absent which answer, submission would become
courage, not to say faith.
THE OLD RELIGION 107
"How much do we unwittingly intuit," he thought,
"in extenuation of that which we lack the honesty to call
'random'? So," he thought, "so, we could argue both sides
of the proposition.
"And if there were no predestination in the walk, or
in the cardinal. Or in the watch, or in myself at all, and
all my actions, and my very self, then . . ."
"The Greeks wrote," the Rabbi had said, "'Either the
Gods exist or they do not. If they do, then, no doubt,
things are unfolding under their control,* if they do not,
why should we mourn to depart a world ruled by chance?' "
"All right. The watch. The cardinal," he thought.
"Yes, these, but what portents did I ignore — for surely my
consciousness, my capabilities, and my predilections pre-
scribe the choice of my impressions. If I had been ill on
that day, would I have stopped by the jewelry window at
all? Or might I not have walked to the pharmacy? And
what would have happened then? Or if I had stopped at
Sloan's for a cigar? Or if I had lingered to watch the car-
dinal . . . ?"
". . . the pictures, Mr. Frank . . . ," the doctor said.
Frank came around. He heard the man repeat the
phrase, and his eyes focused, slowly, on him. "The pic-
tures, yes," Frank said. They were of girls in various states
of undress. Some having or pretending to have sex with
other women, some with men, some simply sitting, look-
ing, Frank thought, quite bored. Drugged, perhaps. He
heard the doctor drone on. ". . . your impressions . . ."
108 DAVID MAMET
"What?" Frank said, and drifted away.
". . .force you to cooperate?" he heard the doctor say.
Then he was back again in contemplation of the cardi-
". . . or come another day. But I must insist on some,
some, some semblance of cooperation." Frank drew in a
"Or do you wish me to go and file this report with
Frank looked at the man.
"... and say that you've been uncooperative?" the
"I've lived my life as a fool," Frank thought. "Every
word and every gesture of my life — those I called Good
and those I called Bad — has been the act of a fool . . .
"If there is this vicious stupidity in the world, and I
have, to this point, escaped it by chance, by merest
chance, thirty years, and accounted my astounding for-
tune as a show of merit." He sighed.
"A man had as well establish a school in How to
Avoid the Plague . . ."
"... all right," the doctor said.
". . . because he'd had the blind fortune to've escaped
it himself" he thought, "and so act as those 'authorities'
who have escaped knowledge both of their and others'
savagery, and set themselves up as philosophers."
The man closed his portfolio and stood and gazed at
THE OLD RELIGION 109
"I'm sorry," Frank said. "What is it you wished to
"It's too late for that," the doctor said.
"Well, then," Frank said, "please excuse me if I've put
He saw the man look to determine if he was being
mocked, and he saw that the man felt he most probably
was not, but could not completely dismiss the possibility,
and he saw the man decide that dignity was best pro-
tected by an angry exit, and he left the room accordingly.
"Where was I?" Frank thought. "The bird. Although
I wonder what he expected me to find in those pho-
tographs. Or who the men were who created a science of
looking at them. Wouldn't any two people, of necessity,
have different thoughts and feelings, looking at those
cards? And the doctor himself" he thought.
"I wonder what his feelings were, in showing them to
He rubbed his face. "What can they have been?"
The guard opened the door and motioned for Frank
to stand, which he did, reluctantly, as he preferred the
room to his cell.
He stood. The guard re-manacled his legs and mo-
tioned Frank to leave the room.
Frank shuffled down the corridor. The leg chain ran
between his ankles. At its center was welded a second
chain, the other end of which was a large ring, which the
guard held in his hand.
110 DAVID MAMET
The guard walked behind Frank. The two moved
slowly down the corridor, and through a large metal
door, and into the cell block.
"What can he have seen in those photographs?"
"And what would induce a man to take a job like
They claimed, as their racial due, the right to intimidate,
and were outraged when that right was not endorsed.
The way of our race, he thought, has been to agree
with their position, and to couch all requests as appeals
to their supposed merit.
How insulting the phrase "a credit to his race"; and,
equally, "their contributions to the country." What coun-
try? And, to turn it on its head, those who would pa-
tronize the Jews, what contributions had they made, past
the accident of their ignorant birth?
What Indians had they fought? What British? What
vaccines invented, songs composed, what, in short, had
they done except rest content on some supposed inherited
merit? Those savage dogs on a dungheap, he thought.
112 DAVID MAMET
"But nothing will be defended as vehemently as a lie,
and there's the truth of patriotism.
"'Contributions,' indeed, meaning, 'what have you
done for me?'"
"A Christian country," he mused, "built on the lie 'I
"Saved from what? From death, which means what?
That they have been rendered immortal? By what? By the
incantation of a ritual phrase, 'I believe . . .'
"What pagan idolatry," he thought. "It makes the sin
of the Golden Calf charming and mild.
"I am saved . . ."To be proved when?
And can they really believe that their life on earth is
worthless? Do they not mean it, rather, of the lives of
"Savage, psychotic swine . . . ," he thought.
As they prepared for his second examination.
"And what did it mean to her, 'He is not like other
men? She means, it was some misheard understanding of
circumcision. Yet she was unsure what it meant."
His lawyer should have said "Disrobe," he thought.
"He should have had me do it in the courtroom,
where it could have been shown.
"What did it mean? What can the girl have meant?"
He sat in his cell and looked back on the physical exam-
THE OLD RELIGION 113
"Yes, I will. No, I will not. Yes. I will," he thought.
"No. I will not. No. I will not think of it."
But he could not keep himself from reliving the hu-
miliation, the extremity which was mitigated only by his
sense of wonder.
"If only everyone knew," he thought.
The end of the trial
The power of the prosecutors case — to the extent it
rested on fact — the power lay in the adamantine refusal
of all to believe in Jim's intelligence. In their ability to as-
cribe more than an almost preverbal animal responsive-
ness to him.
"What contempt he must have for whites," Frank
"He says 'nawsuh' and lowers his eyes. And he raped
the girl, and killed her, and is killing me, and evades all
penalty and all suspicion by saying 'nawsuh.'
"Jim did not write the note, for Jim cannot write.
Who, then, was the only person capable, placed at the
scene? Who . . . ?" the prosecutor had said.
But there were the letters. There was the black girl
THE OLD RELIGION 115
who had gone to his lawyers office and offered to sell the
letters Jim had written her.
The handwriting appeared to be the same as in the
Mary Phagan note, "man has his way wid me." And Jim
had signed them. There it was. There was the man proved
"Then," Frank thought, "if there were only two who
could have written the note, and if the writer was the
murderer, and if it were shown that Jim wrote . . ."
But what happened to the letters?
"Love thing, I wants jus to be your man, an . . ."
Day after day, Frank waited. And he waited till the
end of the trial. His requests to his lawyer were answered
by the same patient nod of the head.
But the letters never appeared, and the trial ended,
and he was sentenced to die.
Taken to prison
Whom did one thank when the sun went down?
What could he thank, indeed?
For it was pleasure to occupy his mind with philoso-
phy, or conjugations of a verb, or to make lists. He
would list the cities he had visited, the books he had
read — the novels of Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, or
Anthony Trollope. When he could not sleep he would
have the books. And he would hoard them, as he thought
of it, the more memorables titles till the end,* sometimes,
of course, he would forget them — the memorable
ones — as he made his list. At two, three, at any hour of
the morning, he would be anxious to keep in his mind, in
his sleepy mind, the well-known titles, and use them to
swell his total.
THE OLD RELIGION 117
Saying, yet not saying them, to himself, as he listed
the lesser-known works. But the effort preoccupied him.
He was anxious lest he lose those bonus titles, as he
thought of them, as he made his list. And this anxiety
limited his ability to range freely. As a man carrying the
armful of kindling cannot bend to pick up the one more
He felt these bonus titles impeded his effort to swell
And, if he were to count them at the end, had he not,
efficiently, in "saving" them counted them already?
And, indeed, he felt, each time he employed the de-
vice, that it would be better to enroll at the outset these
better-known books in his list and get on with it.
But he never did. And he felt that it was a stupid ex-
ercise, as the effort, designed to distract him — this mak-
ing-of-a-list — rendered him worried and that much less
disposed to sleep.
For there were forty-seven of Trollope's novels in the
prison library. And over the months he had read them all,
but he never could remember more than thirty, and he
strove for these, and, at the end of his memory, berated
The verbs were better. For he told himself there was
some purpose in their re-enumeration.
But even with the verbs, he rehearsed them not to im-
press them on his mind, but to distract himself.
118 DAVID MAMET
If he did not so muse, evenings, his mind recurred
regularly to the moments at the trial when he'd felt most
And he could not discharge these memories from, as
it were, attendance on him.
Like a scab at which he picked.
He could not help the exercise of his obsessed
recitals, nor could he forgive himself for what he felt was
his shame in being humiliated.
But work would help, and time would help, and the
Rabbi told him the Torah would help.
His other exercise was philosophy.
He wondered, in those nights, if the Torah was given
man to serve man or if man was, to the contrary, put
upon earth to serve God, and our comfort or even com-
pliance of no account thereto whatever.
And what was strength, finally, but ability formed
through repetition — in the fields, with the books, in his
memory, in his mind?
He rejoiced when he read: "What is he who conquers
a city compared to him who conquers his own nature?"
The despised Jew. The Kike.
The stories that they told about the Jew in prison, on
the streets, and in the novels. In each of his books there
was the Jew, the moneylender, the Shylock, the figure of
Was it worthwhile to throw the book away at that in-
THE OLD RELIGION 119
evitable gibe, or could one not shrug and say, "For the
sake of the ten I will spare the town"? And, so, read on,
and obtain the amusement or diversion one contracted
for? As in the book before him now "recoiled at the
touch of the greasy moneylenders hand, as he counted
the bills, one by one, into Phillip's possession — the smile
on his face a presumption barely to be borne."
He thought again of the men at the Coffee Corner,
in the morning. Eating their roll, their fresh bread roll,
and drinking their coffee with chicory.
Thick men, freckled forearms, wide faces, smiling
at each other. Smiling. Good, slow smiles, full of that
sweetness of the South.
It was not false. It was real.
Hed seen it. Though he'd never felt it directed toward
Like circumcision itself, his appearance debarred him
from any option of mistake on their part.
He was The Jew, and that was the end of it.
And had he decried it? He had not. At the Coffee
Corner, in the court?
At home? At no time.
Then was he so weak as to expect a reward? For the
mere performance of his duty, in forbearing? Forbearing
what? There was no choice in it.
Well: man was weak. But it was his task, now, to over-
120 DAVID MAMET
No. No. It was not his job to have been born with
It was his duty to repeat his efforts in spite of his in-
abilities. And time would give strength to his operations,
but it would not feel like strength. And when he looked
back, to compare today with the past, he would feel not
pride but sadness. It was this feeling, the Rabbi said,
which was called wisdom.
He read the novels, he studied the verbs, he rumi-
nated on philosophy, in prison, where he was awaiting ex-
ecution for the crime of murder.
He remembered the tea had tasted like salt.
As he sat at his desk that last Saturday.
The tea had tasted like salt. And he had ruminated
What could be the cause of that? he had wondered.
Salt in the water, salt in the cup, salt in the tea?
Would they adulterate the tea with salt? Why would
they do that? Perhaps they "cured" it, somehow, he
thought, with that which contained, or would, when put
in contact with some other substance, "create" . . . (Not
"create," he thought, "precipitate." Could one "create"
salt? If the two components were brought into contact
and some agent used to fuse them, had one "created" the
salt? What other word, he wondered, could I use? "Facil-
122 DAVID MA MET
itate"? Certainly not. Am I not, am I not — yes, he
thought, I can reason scientifically. Yes. If others can,
then I can. Why not?) Am I not, then (and nothing but)
a "catalyst" — which is that agent which brings about, but
does not participate in, combination?
This is what Man is.
The very act of drinking tea.
The very fact of checking ledgers; the fact of order-
ing raw stock, as ordering the cedar blocks, in which I
cause others to perform certain actions, as they, in turn,
surely cause me. . . .
What a joke. What folly — for now does my tea taste,
after all, any the less like salt?
What a shithole.
Oppose me who can, for, in the keep of my mind, he
thought, I am, if not free, then . . . then, he thought, less
limited than I am outside its confines.
"Miz Scholz," he then called, "could we try once
again with this tea? In fact, please, could I have coffee?"
"Well, we must advertise, and that's an end to it," he
To whom could he be thankful? And for what? Who
aided us? They persecuted us. We strove and have en-
dured in spite of them. Did they not persecute us?
Does that deserve out thanks?
And if, in an atmosphere of possibility, in a land of
plenty, we thrived; if, free of persecution, one has man-
THE OLD RELIGION 123
aged, two have managed, and thrived, was this not the
principle upon which the country was built? To let the in-
dividual thrive, to let him pursue his goals of peace and,
should it be, prosperity? Was this not the purpose of the
founding of the country? So I say: If you have succeeded,
you have done so through efforts of your own. If you
were not impeded, those who ignored you did no more
than was their duty as men.
If you were aided, why should you not have been?
Were you not entitled to it, as were those who aided you?
This country is not God. You need not worship it. It
was established to free men from the tyranny of kings,
and it is our right here to pursue happiness and live in
peace. Our right. Should a child prostrate itself in thanks
that its parents have not beaten it?
And was that child an orphan, how much more were
they beholden to treat it with care.
Am I in error? Show me where.
The work clothes
One never got wholly free of the stench in the prison
clothes. Even when washed — perhaps especially then —
they assaulted him with the stink of cheap soap and dirty
rinse water, as if the stink was not washed out but fixed
by the weekly ablution.
He tried to school himself to identify that new-
washed odor as "clean," but he could not do it. The
clothes were filthy. The stench was geometrically com-
pounded by the effort to hide rather than remove it.
"I am too sensitive," he thought. "Most live with bad
unpleasant odors all their lives. Why should I moan be-
cause I, for a time, escaped it?"
Pleased with his philosophic construction, he shook
out the ash-blue clothes and laid them on the bed.
THE OLD RELIGION 125
They were stiff with the laundry starch. He thought,
as he did every week, "If I could only wash the starch
out, and hang them to dry in the sun . . ."
His blue clothes . . . "Not blue," he thought, "not
blue." White. Not grey. Ash white. Ash grey. Blue only by
courtesy. Washed-out blue grey. Ash grey. Perhaps the
color of stones on some far-off beach. Uninteresting
stones — not those the traveler would remark, but those
"People with eyes this color must be killers," he
thought. "There is such a thing as 'killers' eyes,' that's
true. That's certainly true. We must not credit the things
we read in books. They all are advertisements. We must
only trust the things which we have learned.
"Does it always come through pain?" he thought.
"Well, those lessons — there may be others, but those
lessons are incontrovertibly our education. Those lessons
exist beyond the power of anyone to talk us out of them.
Like a stumbling against a hot stove.
"Who, however deranged, would do that again will-
ingly? Perhaps nothing less mechanical than this is edu-
"But what, now, would I do differently?
"Believe in no one. Trust no one. Do nothing to set
myself above the crowd. Confide in no one. Hope for
nothing at all; arm myself, kill those who would torture
me. Why must I submit to their obscenities in the name
126 DAVID MAMET
of some law? What is the law to me? I thought that it was
my shield. When it protected me I 'believed' in it. What
can that have meant? That I voted for myself."
He looked at the work clothes laid out on the bunk.
"Not the 'Negro' smell," he thought, "not the fresh
washing mixed with sweat. Not the heat of the iron, but
clothes as if they'd been boiled in shit." Exactly as if
they'd been boiled in shit.
He shook his head.
Nothing, he thought, will be defended as vehemently
as a lie.
Someone of his friends had something of a diet in which
he refrained from a few foods and lost the weight he'd
wanted without effort.
"I simply eliminated alcohol and dairy and sweets
and bread," he'd said, "and I shed the weight. Eleven
pounds in two months, although during the time, I had
been traveling in Europe."
Well, it was an issue, Frank thought. His wife was fat.
As was her mother. And his father was fat. And his
His uncle, who had told the story, had been traveling
in Britain, which, Frank thought, lessened the merit of
his fast, as who had ever praised Britain for food?
He thought about his uncle's pride, and wondered
128 DAVID MAMET
how much of it had to do with action contrary to
what, for want of a better word, he thought of as "Jew-
And, if the people were gross, if they so thought of
themselves, was it not caused, this condition — if the
condition was the thought or if obesity — by their dis-
Aha, he thought.
Though slim himself, though slender, though dis-
posed to equate it with royalty, and though disposed to
feel superior to his relatives, over those he knew, Jew and
Gentile alike, who fretted over their weight, he fought the
urge to consider himself chosen; and he wondered: might
it not be a fear of the outcast? Might it not be the self-
loathing, he thought, of the displaced — that their very
metabolism would not function to allow them to assim-
ilate food in a foreign land?
"The very foods we eat," he thought.
The jailer scraped his key along the bars as he came
down the gallery.
"Yes, All right," Frank thought — and there was
something comforting in the sound.
"'Royally slim,'" he thought, "although I know they
called me sickly. And turned on me for it. Slim. Slight.
Slender. Girlish." He shuddered.
"Or, in Arctic climes," he thought, "there it would be
a disadvantage definitely. Where the body's urge to put
THE OLD RELIGION 129
on flesh would serve one. And the opposite not do one
well. But in the South . . ."
Down the row, there was a quick conversation in un-
dertones. The guard and a prisoner down the row, talk-
The guard responded, not unkindly, from the tone,
to the request, whatever it was. Then Frank heard another
brief exchange — almost an exchange of pleasantries —
between the two, and then the guard moved on, dragging
his key on the bars as he moved from cell to cell for the
"But in the South you would think it was an advan-
tage," Frank thought. "I always found it so — not to be
disposed, for example, to sweat."
The guard was at his cell, and he heard the key rasp-
ing on the bars, and then the quick tack-fM, as the key
went into the lock. And then he was locked down for the
"No. I will not think of fire," he thought. "In fact, its
opposite is Cold of the North, and the Eskimos I have
just fortuitously touched upon. Though they themselves
are slight. But muscled. And disposed, I think, to brawn.
To a brawn tempered by cold — so that, perhaps, it's ac-
curate to call them slight.
"I would think they're of a type similar to their dogs,
as both have been bred both by the climate in which they
live and by their exertions in that climate."
130 DAVID MAMET
He tried to think whether any species fell outside of
this description, and could only offer himself, trans-
They were late with his food.
"All right," he thought. "I have to learn the difference
between defending my position and promoting my inter-
"I am entitled to my food, and a case could be made
for demanding it on time this time, to ensure compliance
in the future. And that would be an attempt — for who
can say it would succeed? — to defend my position.
"But would it promote my interest?
"First," he thought, "Is it worth fighting for? And,
then, is it worth . . . No. No," he thought. "It is all con-
tained in the first question. That is the question: 'Is it
worth fighting for?'
"That is the question of the philosopher who is not
afraid to seem foolish. Who is not afraid to be thought
weak. Who can rest content with his own opinion of
himself — for it is myself 1 must conquer, and he who con-
quers himself is due more praise than he who takes a city.
For if I can still my longing to be thought well of,
then . . .
"And I am not hungry," he thought. "Finally, I don't
want the food now. I do not require it. I require to be
thought well of.
THE OLD RELIGION 131
"Then what kind of beast am I — for they have kid-
napped me and will surely kill me, who would strive to
defend his — no, I will not say it," he thought — "manhood
by demanding the food be brought him at the appointed
"Are all quests for recognition similarly vain?" he
thought; and, as he did, they brought the food.
One man opened the cell, while the other man stood
back with the pump shotgun. The man with the tray
came in and set it on the bench. As he bent down, he
flicked his eyes up to look at the prisoner. Then he
backed out, and the cell was locked. Frank heard the two
men walk away.
"He smells of cabbage," he thought.
"The cell still smells of cabbage, and it's from that
fellow. Looks like a sausage. And where is it written I
must love my neighbor?"
He looked at the tray. He picked the small bench up
and put it next to his bunk. He sat on the bunk and
began to eat.
"No. Where do we find we must love our neighbor?
No. We must treat them well," he thought, and found that
he was pointing, as if in a disputation. And he wondered
if it was a "Jewish" gesture, and a "Jewish" trait. And he
wondered, "What does that mean?" And he thought,
"You know what that means."
He ate his meal, happy to find he was hungry for it.
"And what can it mean that he gave his only begotten
son? If he had a son, where was his wife? And is that not
idolatry? Where is his wife? No. I'm sorry.
"And the difference is here: Abraham did not kill his
son. Their God did. And the difference is 'God so loved
the world,' where we are not told 'God loved the world';
we are told to love Cod.
"And we are not told we should love the world. And
perhaps it is the love of the world which leads to murder,
where the love of God . . .
'"Abracadabra,"' he thought. '"I create as I speak.'
"It did not ward the plague off. And in Les Miserahles,
we see it in their chain letter: 'Little White Paternoster,
save me from . . .'
THE OLD RELIGION 133
'"But if I am to have wisdom I must pass beyond
hate,' one voice said. And the next said, 'Why?'
"Is it an advance to be told to 'love our enemies'?
Who does so?"
He looked down at his plate.
"And some food goes slowly and some goes fast. But
if you leave it on your plate it will rot, and the more
complex the organism, the quicker it will rot and the
worse it will stink. What does that tell us?" he thought,
and, "How many processes were used to stamp this metal
tray?" He examined it.
"Only two," he pronounced, and nodded. "And the
name of the maker part of the second.
"No. I lie. For the initial stamping makes one, to
gain the shape, and I would not venture to combine it
either with the impression to give the depth nor with
turning the rim. So say three, and the stamping of the
name part of the second. What is business but fore-
He mopped up the sauce with his bread. He wiped
his hands on a handkerchief taken from the back pocket
of his dungarees.
He rose and sighed and moved the small bench back
to the wall.
He took the tray and its utensils and placed them on
the floor near the bars.
He turned and looked at his books.
134 DAVID MAMET
There was the Hebrew primer. There was Les Mis-
There was the Torah, in Hebrew and English. There
were three novels by Anthony Trollope. There was the
notepaper and, there, the several pencils.
Behind him were the bars.
"Abraham refrained," he thought. "I'm sorry, but
He picked up a piece of notepaper, folded it double,
and used the corner to clean a space between two teeth.
Then he sat on his bed.
"Oh, Lord, I'm tired," he thought.
"There seem to be two courses," he said, "though they
both may be one. But I do not think they are."
"Go on," the Rabbi said.
"The first is to do these things to better ourselves; or
to become ... I don't know how to say it, but the end, I
think, is to become . . . the words I might use are 'fuller,'
or 'wiser,' or 'more happy — I think that those are the
words — through the things that we do.
"The second, for want of a better word, is 'to serve
God.'" He looked at the other man. "What do you think
"There are many ways to serve God," the Rabbi said.
Frank's face fell.
136 DAVID MAMET
That night he thought about the Rabbi.
"Well, what was he but a man? An overworked man,
out of goodness or, perhaps, if he was paid for it, out of
necessity — but lump them together under one head and
say, 'from a sense of duty' — working as a prison chaplain.
"A tired man, of necessarily stock responses. He was
sent not to 'share my enlightenment' but to enlighten me —
which, in fact, he does. Through his unconcern. It is not
to him, but to me, to reason," he thought. "Why should
he care for me at all?"
"He, I am sure, in fact, has prejudice against a man he
cannot but think guilty. Ah." He nodded.
"Guilty and 'Bad for the Jews.' What could be worse
for the Jews than I? What could be worse?"
"And perhaps, to suffer in silence is to Sanctify the
"What trash runs thought my head," he thought.
"What effort there is in weaning oneself from the
world. We can succeed for one second, then we are drawn
back into it. Briefly, briefly, free of regret. Free of our
anger. For a moment. And then drawn back into it. All
those beasts . . ."
He thought he saw pictured before him the court-
room, and the faces of the reporters, transfixed in perfect
completion. Perfect in their happiness, in their submis-
sion in the Tribe — as Levites assisting the sacrifice.
"You swine," he thought. "You Christians."
The process of learning a foreign language seemed to
him the paradigm of human endeavor.
One struggled in the darkness; and mastery came —
when it came — in increments so small as to be recogniz-
able only in retrospect.
And accomplishment carried no particular joy, only a
feeling of irritability. As, he thought, of course the word
for "eternally" in Hebrew was tamid.
"Further," he thought, "to whom could I boast of
my mastery of Hebrew? The Jews would take the ability
as a matter of course, and no one else would care."
In learning, one said, "I will know it in the future."
But that particular future never arrived, for the term — in
its use here — meant "the present."
138 DAVID MAMET
"Not a time to come," he thought, "but a magical, si-
multaneous present. Like this time in all respects save
that in it I will speak the foreign tongue.
"For who would pine for a time to come which was
remarkable only for the fact that time had passed, in
which passing time one had suffered to master a skill?
"No," he thought, "the future is simply idolatry.
And, similarly, 'Change', and 'tomorrow.'
"Equally the past. For that is how they've condemned
me — in the search for a magical past, like the present in
all respects but with no Jews.
"They long for some magical past when there was no
strife; and point and say, 'If he were gone, this past would
"So this past is, again, the future — for even if one
could return to it, when would one do so but in a sub-
sequent moment? So, it is the Magic Future, free of
strife, in which the Goyim will be freed from their
historic impediment, and in which, equally, I will have
mastered Hebrew, and the seven forms of the Hebrew
"Well, then," he thought, "how can that future exist
in which, at once, I have mastered Hebrew and there are
no more Jews?
"Clearly no one future can exist, for all are, to a cer-
tain extent, at least potentially contradictory; or, say,
'mutually excluding'; and so, it is not the future at all
THE OLD RELIGION 139
which one seeks, but (in a supportive proof) idolatry, and,
so, it is proved.
"Which does not help me with the following verb:
shin hay mem, to guard. Shamoor, guarded. Shomer, guarding.
Nismor, guarding, or protecting, oneself.
"How peaceful it is here, he thought.
The Hebrew language
The Rabbi took a packet of tobacco from the pocket of
his shirt and began rolling a smoke. He offered his hands
toward Frank, who nodded, his thoughts far away.
He finished rolling the one and then the second cig-
arette. He handed both across toward Frank, who took
The Rabbi took a kitchen match from the same
pocket of his shirt and struck it on the side rail of the
iron cot. The smell of sulfur filled the room.
"Why does it make the heat less?" Frank said. He
looked at his cigarette.
"Does it? I think it does. ..."
'"F you thought of it . . . ?"
"I think . . . ," the Rabbi said, "that it distracts us. . . ."
THE OLD RELIGION 141
The men sat there smoking for a moment. Then the
Rabbi raised his eyebrows to say, "Well? Shall we con-
tinue?" Frank nodded, and they bent over the books,
spread open on the cot.
"Zachor" he said. "To remember. Lecket, to glean.
Shamar, to guard. Nagah, to touch."
He continued. The Rabbi leaned back in his chair, to
take his body out of the sun. There was some cool in the
wall of the cell, and a small triangle of shade between the
wall and the bars.
"Ahav, to love. Shatah, to drink. Haiti, favor, or grace.
Maskoret, reward. Azov, to leave. Antrim, sheaves. Poal . . ."
Frank s thought went back to the trial, as always. Not
his arrest, or the assault that day on the streets, not his
incarceration, but the trial.
"Was I naive?" he thought, as part of his mind
thought most of the day, every day; and, "Was ever any-
one so naive?" He rebelled at the presence of the other
man in his cell, as if, now, as his thoughts recurred to the
trial, the other man were witnessing his degradation.
He looked at the shadow on the floor. The window
bars, across the joint in the flooring, told an angle of
thirty degrees, or two o'clock. In half an hour the Rabbi
would leave. But how, he wondered, could he get through
the half hour?
"Yes . . . ?" the other man said.
Now the cigarette was hot, burnt to his fingers, and
142 DAVID MAMET
the smoke was hot in his lungs. He took the coffee can
and pushed the butt into the sand in it and held it toward
the other man, who shook his head and then inclined it
toward the book, to say, "Let us continue."
Frank was overcome, at that moment, by his hatred
of the Rabbi — by furious, overwhelming hatred for him
and for all that he represented.
"No," he thought. "No. Wait. No. Wait. What am I
going to do now? Kill him? What? Kill? Measly little Jew.
Sour sweat. What is he, sweating into his cheap suit?
"Why doesn't he take his coat off?"
The Rabbi was speaking.
"What?" Frank said. "What . . . ?"
"Moledet" the man said.
"What . . . ?"
"Birth. Birth." Frank said. "Birth. Kindred."
There was no talk of a pardon, he was told. It was
enough, he was told, that the governor had commuted
his sentence to life in prison. That man would never
again, he was told, hold elective office in the state; and
was, in fact, he was told, in danger. He had received
threats. He . . .
Frank dozed somewhat, as his lawyer went on. he
heard the references to "years to come" and "eventually";
and he drifted off, and, in his mind, this haze mingled
with his sleep in his cell; and the lawyer seemed, in his
dream, to be using a Latin term, and that term was "salt."
"Assault?" he wondered. "Soult?""Saut?"The root was
familiar, but he could not apply it to the present case of
"And why should he speak in foreign tongues?" he
thought. "What is the purpose of it but to obscure?"
144 DAVID MAMET
But perhaps it was Hebrew, he thought, in his dream.
The Leshon HaKodesh. The Holy tongue. "Salt." He re-
duced it to Shin LamedTof. "What can this root mean?" He
dreamed, in his dream, he was in as stone building in
some Eastern port city. He was dressed in a toga and car-
ried a roll of papyrus, or what he took papyrus to be, as
he walked into the building which he then knew was a li-
brary. But there were women there, which struck him as
odd, as he knew that women, in the city in which he
found himself, in ancient Greece, in Rome, perhaps,
would not have been allowed into the building.
"Not women," he thought. "That was not the operative
prohibition. It was Jews. Jews would not have been al-
lowed. "I would not have been allowed. . . ."
During the day, he thought back on the dream.
He progressed. From "What was I seeking?" to "some
word," to "some legal term," to "sue"; and, thus, to the
memory of his encounter with the lawyer the afternoon
before, and, thus, to its reiteration in that evenings
dream, and, unbidden, later, to the word "salt."
But was it Hebrew? he thought.
When his work in the dispensary was finished, he re-
turned to his cell for prayers. And, after prayers he took
down the lexicon, and a pad and pencil.
"Shin. Lamed. Tof" he wrote out. "Or, Shin. Lamed. Tet;
or, Samech Lamed Tet or Tof he wrote. "Or . . ." Here he
looked at the list and perceived these would be enough
for his beginning.
THE OLD RELIGION 145
Under the first he found nothing. Under the second,
"Sbalat. Shin. Lamed. Tof: to domineer. From the Aramaic: to
overcome, to prevail."
Could that be it? But, no — as it solidified, and be-
came not an unexplained experience but a landmark, and
that landmark only the one meaning, and that meaning
unconnected to his dream, he discarded it. It was devoid
of mystery. That mystery was the word "salt," which he
had dreamed, and which was being brought back to him
to remind him, to admonish him. But of what?
And, suddenly, he was back in his kitchen. On that
Saturday morning. Over his breakfast. Sitting alone.
Early. Ruthie out shopping, as she did Saturdays, his wife
asleep upstairs, and he was in his kitchen, cooking por-
ridge. He was reading the newspaper. His hand went out
for the salt, and the glass jar knocked over, the cork fell
out, and the salt sprinkled over the counter.
"That," he thought, "was my first premonition. If I
had one. As I look back to it: that was it." And then he
thought, "There is no augury in Israel, No sorcery in
- Tudah," and, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," and,
r "... no signs or portents."
But surely theTorah contradicted itself on this point,
as it did on most every point, giving alternate or con-
flicting advice or commandment.
Were there not, he thought, Medad and Eldad, whom
Moses himself allowed to prophesy? And was there not . . .
"No," he thought. "This is new to me, and I should
146 DAVID MA MET
not be allowed to confute even myself in this ancient argu-
ment. . . ."
("Nadah and Abihu," a descant ran in his mind.)
"... and Baalam," he thought. "Whose prophecies
were directed by the Lord. And . . . and the Prophets
themselves," he thought. "Ezekiel, Elijah himself; and, fur-
ther . . .
"I must ask the Rabbi" and "The man knows noth-
ing" warred in his head. From the short conflict emerged:
"What can you expect of a prison system so poor, so
savage; and from a man who himself . . ." The conflict
reemerged with: "No, I will not think ill of the Rabbi,
who, whatever his incompetencies, has worked to help
"The salt was spirit" he thought. The feeling grew as
it came back to him. ". . . and I thought, 'scrape it up and
throw it over your shoulder.' and then I thought, 'that's
superstition, and unfitting to a man who can understand
the workings of cause and effect.' And then I thought . . ."
He remembered how he prided himself on his logi-
cal process: "I am a careful man, and am I to fly in the
face of ancient custom (which would not exist without a
reason) without first examining it? For my desire to per-
form magic with the salt is strong."
And he remembered hearing his wife stirring up-
stairs, at that early, unaccustomed time, and hoping she
would not come down to spoil his cherished Saturday
THE OLD RELIGION 147
"Why might it exist?" he thought. "That supersti-
tion? And could it, in any way, affect the progress of. . ."
Here he remembered the boy riding past on the bicycle,
and here, too, that the day was the Confederate Memor-
ial Day; and that he might have difficulty with the crowds
on his way home from work.
He had swept the salt with the fat side of his hand,
toward the counter edge. It formed small, diagonal ridges
in the moist day, adhering to the wood; but he swept it
along, over the edge, and into his other palm, as he de-
He wondered how he would act next — puzzled that
he could divide himself in two: the actor and the ob-
server at once; and the actor again into two: he who
would throw and he would not throw the offering; and
then it came to him, and he raised his left hand, and held
it over the porridge pot, and threw the salt into it.
"I have not wasted it," he thought. "It has meaning."
But what was that word?
He glanced down at the pad and saw, written there,
Shakt. He tried to remember its meaning, and found it
"No, it must be there," he thought. "For it was there
a moment ago. Shin. Lamed. Tof. Shalat: to . . ." "Yes?" an op-
posing voice asked. "Yes," he thought. "To overcome.
From the Aramaic."
A different religion
There was something in it. However he tried.
There was something in it . . . just beyond him; he
knew what it was when he did not confront it intellectu-
When he looked away, as it were, there it was. It was
a warm and correct feeling of belonging. "That is it," he
thought. "It feels 'correct.' "
It was a "clean" word, he thought.
But when he confronted it beyond the issue of faith, there
was little he could see.
When he confronted it, he saw that they did not
want him and despised his efforts to belong. He saw
that, to them, he would always be a Jew. And that all his
ratiocination regarding assimilation was, to them, pa-
THE OLD RELIGION 149
thetic. More, that there was but a short step between
their sad bemusement at his antics and their rage. But be-
yond that, he felt, there was something in it that he — not
"as a Jew," certainly no, but "as a man" — was entitled to.
Something that They had.
That something was his right as an American. That
was his right as a citizen of a country which guaranteed
What was that freedom, if not the Freedom to
Oh, but the smallest movement could have meaning.
Not only the larger signs, oh, no, the smaller signs too —
and, perhaps, more so.
"There is a different religion," the Rabbi said. "It is
no more complex than that.
"Medad and Eldad," said the Rabbi. "Yes. Nadab
"The question of prophecy. Where were we?"
What was "the Country"? Frank thought. There was no
country. There was but a loose association of common
interests cloaked, for convenience, in the mantle of a civil
This religion was the highest authority, to transgress
against which was death.
That was, he reflected, a democracy. This was
democracy: the rule of the Mob. The Mob had elected
itself God, and worshiped itself under another name.
That name was America. "But," the Rabbi said, "the
dove had been dispatched the three times. Once, it had
returned. The second time, it returned with the branch in
its mouth, and the third time, it had not returned at all.
"Could it not be," Frank reflected, "that the dove had
THE OLD RELIGION 151
wanted to remain on the ark? That when Noah expelled
it, it returned hurt, hurt and fearful; that when he sent it
out again, it returned with this evidence: the land exists,
but it is bitter.
"Here, I bring the representative fruit.
"Then, when Noah repulsed it again, it went forth,
having been given no choice but to make its way in that
"Marah," the Rabbi said, "is 'bitter.' It survived in
Latin and the Romance tongues as amer, which we see
further elaborated but essentially unchanged in the map-
maker s name Americus and in the land America."
"Vast ships upon the sea," Frank thought, "brought
starved men, clothed in armor, to the wonder of the
"And the well of Miriam," the Rabbi said, "followed
the Israelites throughout the decades in the desert.
'Miriam' is also from marah. And also the well is meribah."
"The ark," Frank thought, "thus becoming also the
Garden of Eden. From which they did not wish to be ex-
". . . and in the modern 'Mary,' " the Rabbi said.
"For the land," Frank thought, "the land is bitter."
He turned the ring on his finger as he waited for his wife.
"Yes," he thought, "I know I am doing it."
He remarked the prison smells, and tried to sense
them as she might: repugnant, fetid, revolting, the sewage
smell — that nameless poverty and despair and sewerage
and sweat which was in the wood, which so revolted him
"That was the worst trial," he thought. The clothes
imperfectly cleaned and, then, ironed, the stink burned
That smell. The stench of shit on everything.
"Is it an actionable luxury to be clean," he thought,
"and should the clean atone for their mindless enjoyment
of magnificence? What must she think, to come here
smelling of soap, her very dress clean?
THE OLD RELIGION 153
"In the desert, the air was dry. Smells did not carry.
Everyone was washed in sweat. Everyone's diet and life
was the same, so odors, when they came, went unre-
marked; or, if remarked, were not improbably recognized
as the smell of home.
"Not unlike the furniture polish on the hall hatrack;
for a nomadic people have only each other. That is their
She came forward, the lawyer at her side. He watched
He noticed he had stopped twisting the wedding
He stood and caught the eye of a guard, who nodded
He walked the three paces forward to the wire mesh,
and waited for his wife. His finger held the place in the
He walks with me, and he talks with me
He tells me that I am his own.
And the joy we share, as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.
The words came to him on the breeze from down the
prison yard, and they seemed sweet, like the breeze. The
words seemed natural, as the discovery of some previ-
ously unsuspected force, some force which underlay the
conscious world, and moved it.
Like the force of love, as it's discovered to an adoles-
Or the force of fatherhood, where one says, "Now.
Ah. Now I understand" — Where so much unclear be-
comes clear, and we see understanding is not a reordering
THE OLD RELIGION 155
of opposites in the mind but the clarification of appar-
ent contradiction into simplicity.
"Yes," he thought. "Clean as the breeze and fecund
like the breeze. Like the spring field: the notion one is
saved — that one has but to embrace salvation and one is
But the fallacy — the Rabbi had said — lay in this:
One cannot award oneself salvation. The joy one feels in
doing so comes from usurpation of the power of God.
In linking salvation — whatever that might be — to
faith, one sets oneself the simplest of tasks and, upon its
completion, awards oneself Godhood. Of course that
feels good. "How could that feel otherwise than good?"
the Rabbi said. To have illicit sex, or rape, or murder,
sanctioned by Authority, that felt good too. "Any idola-
try," the Rabbi said, "that is the force which sent you
These saved folk have been convened these two thou-
sand years to kill and hate and call it good.
Of course they're wedded to it. What savage ever de-
nominated his barbarity other than Reason?
"Of course it feels good," the Rabbi said.
"And tell the drunkard his vileness is a religion, and
the dope fiend his lack of control is blessed. . . ." He
"We do not know what is right." the Rabbi said. "We are
incompetent to distinguish it. Our eyes lead us astray.
156 DAVID MAMET
Our heart leads us astray. That is why we are bonded to
follow the mitzvot: what else do we have? The delusion of
comprehension, which leads us to proclaim we are God.
"We understand nothing"
"Of course you're drawn to their songs," Frank
thought. "You fool."
"And so drawn to the singers of the songs, and their
"And do you think they would have you if you em-
braced them? You are an object of scorn. Why? Why?
It is not for you to say. Do you hear? It is not for you to
"Stand guiltless before God — to the extent you
can — and let the Christians behave as they will. You can-
not stop them.
"You cannot join them. Why would you want to?
"Study, live, and die."
But the song came through the window: "I walk in
the Garden alone . . ."
"To be a man," the Rabbi said, was to behave as a
man in that situation where there were neither the trap-
pings nor the rewards of manhood: scorned, reviled,
abandoned, humiliated, powerless, terrified, mocked.
"Now be a man . . ." the Rabbi said.
The song came through the window, and as he de-
nominated it strength to resist it, to that extent he felt
Who would know that the dot had not been placed on
the i at the time the word was written?
What process, he wondered, what forensic magic,
would reveal it?
For he had no doubt that such methods existed,* or, if
they did not, that they would come into being at some
For it was on that most powerful entity he pinned his
hopes — upon that benevolent God he knew: when he re-
ferred to it by name, it bore a name too simple and mun-
dane to compass its clear awesome power. Its quotidian
name, the Future.
In the Future, methods would exist, he knew, to re-
veal all that had been hidden.
158 DAVID MAMET
Methods would exist — for, no, we could not feel that
they existed now. (Would not their current being detract
from any potential redemptive aspect of their discovery?
Yes, he thought, it would.)
Such methods would — though the groundwork
might be allowed to have been laid (for what can build
on nothing?) — have to come to light in years to come,
brought into being for some other task; not, he knew,
certainly, for the purpose of examination of his life, or
of this letter; nor, perhaps, for the analysis of ink at all,
but for some unconnected application. Then, he thought,
at some point it would be discovered, as a matter of
course, that such methods had a wider use, had many
uses, one of which was the dating of ink.
Then, when the arcane became the open; then, at that
golden time, the time of the Future, of Progress, of
Change, of Heaven, in fact; in that time, then, when the
processes existed, when the black ignorance of the pres-
ent had been cleansed through a simple perseverance . . .
then, yes, the technology would — he could not doubt
it — exist to date the ink.
Then they would know that his confession bore a se-
cret, different and, perhaps, in a way, more mysterious
and deeper than the Simple Secret of his Soul — what-
ever that might be.
He'd fought with it.
Though driven by the urge to purify himself, though
driven in each sentence, at each word, to speak the truth,
THE OLD RELIGION 159
he knew he lied. Every word, he thought, colored by the
wish to defend, to extenuate, to distract. ("To distract
whom?" he thought, but continued.)
In any case, to attempt both to cleanse and to defend
himself, he wrote of his pride, and of his arrogance, and
of his dishonesty in social dealings. He wrote of his off-
hand treatment of his wife, and wrote and wrote. At
all times thinking, "I could continue transcribing these
'sins of character' interminably. For I know them to be
true as they are endless. My sins are endless. But I am not
And as he thought it, he wrote it:
"... mistreatment of those around me. And sloth."
But I am not cruel.
His written confession continued.
As he wrote, he was troubled by the reference to
For he knew himself to be hardworking. Not, cer-
tainly, like the factory hands, no. But hardworking. Ded-
icated, in fact. In the area, the administrative area, of his
And not cruel.
Here, again, he was troubled, in a way different from
that occasioned by his assertion of industry. For he knew
he'd written the denial of cruelty for the eyes of some
person or power in the future, which would have interest
in him solely — he would have to admit it — as he was
convicted of killing that girl.
160 DAVID MAMET
And they might interpret this, his freewill confes-
sion, as a sign of his guilt.
They might — might they not? — magnify what he
thought of and was ashamed to realize he thought of as
No, no, his disingenuousness, his candor in the frank
confession of his sins, was, and he knew it was, an arro-
And he might, he knew, in fact be guilty of those very
sins the confession of which induced him to think he
was pure of.
But not of cruelty. No.
And as he wrote it, he felt that he had transgressed.
"I am not cruel," he wrote, and felt that, here, the mech-
anism was inverted.
For he felt, in the heart of himself, that he was, in
fact, not cruel. He had known cruelty, and had seen it,
and could not recognize it in himself. But as he wrote in
his confession "I am not cruel," he felt the mechanism
thus: Yes, but I have transgressed in the transcription, and
my assertion must mask a cruelty of which I am uncon-
He looked back up the page.
He saw that the i of "insight" sloped into the n, and
that he had not dotted the i.
Though he knew that the word was clear enough
from context, and was, in fact, most legible as it stood, he
THE OLD RELIGION 161
took the pen and put a dot over the i, which, through the
delicacy of his touch, achieved the character of a minute
"Who would know," he thought, "the dot was not
placed on as I wrote the word?"
As he raised the pen, he admired the apparent unity
of the dot and the letter.
He could not, "even in possession of 'the facts,' " as
he thought, see any inconsistency of color or form in the
"Someday, however," he thought, "the science will
exist," and sighed. "But what would induce one to apply
it in this case?"
He thought, "And what would it accomplish?"
He sat up, his feet on the floor, sitting up straight on
the bunk. His confession on a writing board on his
"Why would they ever be moved to examine it?" he
thought; and, "The secret will die with me."
"It says throughout," the Rabbi said, "that they are
blessed who bless us, and cursed who curse us. I believe
our history has shown this is true."
If there were a God, Frank thought, then that which
has befallen me could not be random. If it were ordered,
then, surely, I could determine a cause-and-effect rela-
tionship between my actions and my trouble.
But here, he thought, he committed the error of an
egocentric theology. For could not and must not Gods
objectives be different from his own? "Must they not dif-
fer?" he thought; and, again, "If I assign a reason to my
trials, such reason beyond my comprehension, do I not,
again, suggest myself, in my very punishment, important
THE OLD RELIGION 163
"But then, perhaps, I am important to God, but my
happiness is not. Or, perhaps, my happiness is not, but
my welfare is; and He, whatever power He is, construes
the second more important than the first. Like a good fa-
ther — or, for all that, like a bad father also.
"A man," the Rabbi had said, "a poor man, found a
fine horse upon the road. 'How fortunate you are,' his
friends said. 'Well,' the man said, 'well, you never know.'
His son took the horse out to ride, and was thrown, and
was maimed. 'How misfortunate you are,' the friend said,
and the man said 'Well, you never know' But the next day
the recruiting officers came round, to press the Jewish
boys. Where they would go to the Czar's army to serve
twenty-five years. But the man's son was maimed, and so
he was spared. 'How fortunate you are," his friend said,
and the man . . ."
"Yes," Frank thought. "In fact, that is true."
The Hebrew dictionary was his passport to another land.
"If I had a photographic memory" he thought, "I'd
have but to glance at it — but where would be the merit in
And he felt a kind of self-indulgence, a sumptuous-
ness, in fact, reading through the words, knowing he
could not retain them, that they were his for the moment
"There is that of cultism, of the Mandarin, in the
perusal of the ancient, accidental text," he thought. "For
though it has come down to us in this form, the form
was, we would have to say, arbitrarily fixed, and errors in
the typography have been canonized and studied.
"On the one hand, could we not extrapolate truth
THE OLD RELIGION 165
from an error? Gregor Mendel did. And, on the other
hand, might we not be as likely to arrive at nonsense, and,
aha, are these two cases not in fact equally likely out-
comes of the study of Scripture?
"Having arrived at that, how have I spent my morn-
"Might we not study any text? And where would that
He signed. He swung his legs down to the floor and
looked at the floor, and then up at the bars. Cast into the
bars was the manufacturers mark: "Ginnett and Hub-
bard. Penal Engineering. Booth, Ohio."
"Let us, then," he thought, "lay this out upon a grid."
He counted the letters and found forty-two.
"If we add in the punctuation marks, we arrive at
fifty, which is five by ten, and may be arrayed thus:
H I X
The word NALXE presented itself to him. Turning
the first block through ninety degrees, he saw the word
AGROO in the second square, and his mind caught upon
the phrase "The letters of the First Square suggest them-
selves to me as more probably containing reason than
166 DAVID MAMET
those of the Second Square. But perhaps this is a trick
played on me by the inevitable connotation of hierarchy
in the terms 'first' and 'second' square." He studied the
squares, and rotated them to form diamonds, yielding:
H X N
R U A E
D B N T
X B D
E G L
R R I X
X A S N E
X A D
And he realized he had come to suppose and expect
that the squares would resolve themselves, and that even
this consciousness would not dispel a conviction that
they would do so.
THE OLD RELIGION 167
T X X N I
R U A E
D B N T
X B D
He began to translate.
"God, the (thy?) — xnn, ruae — Dobent? Dabent? . . ."
It would require work and, obviously, dedication, but
given both, meaning would, he was sure, be found.
"But why," said the voice of reason, or, as he thought
of it, "a detractor," "would a message be impressed into
the bars of a cell?"
"There are two reasons," he thought.
"One: It seems that any science is the attempt to
wrest meaning from the superficially random. All great
advances in the fields of . . . ," he thought, "medicine,
chemistry, and . . ." He was reluctant to include physics,
as he was unsure of precisely in what it consisted.
"Surely, physics, though, whatever it contains, must ad-
vance through the connection of previously unconnected
facts, else what is the good of an equation?
"Most of human thought, in fact," he thought, "is
the attempt to find a hidden meaning. My second asser-
tion is this: If the meaning does not exist, then there is
meaning in our attempts to create it."
168 DAVID MAMET
"This assertion on my part is either very wise or
foolish," he thought. "What of a grain of sand? And
what fool would be fool enough to study it? And yet.
And yet . . . And yet there exists such things as crystals,
and many have learned from them.
"Now: four men went into the garden, we are told —
Azai, Ben Zoma, Aher, and Rabbi Akiba. One became
mad, one took his own life, one became a heretic, and
one, Akiba, went on to glory as a Teacher of the Soul.
Now: Could that very garden be contained in these
squares? Why not?
"Or else, in what did it consist, save in the arbitrary
arrangement of matter which they believed would hold a
"Will I say that these men, Hubbard and Ginnett,
were put on the earth to place their names upon that bar
to instruct me? No. I will not. Will I say I was not put
upon the earth to find a meaning in their names? I can-
not discount it. For is that not the enterprise in which I
find myself? And, if it's ludicrous, how much more so is
my incarceration for a crime simple right reason knows
me innocent of having done? And if I may assume that it
is not ridiculous to state that there may be reason in the
words on the bars, then may I not extrapolate that it is
not beyond the realm of reason to assume that those men
had been put upon earth in part to furnish the material of
"Now, I know that to be false, for I cannot fix myself
THE OLD RELIGION 169
as the center of a universe which, aeons ago, gave rise not
only to the alphabet but to my disposition to reorder it
in equilateral components. There is nothing in that — I
cannot go that far.
"But now I am lost, and to what must I cling in order
to both navigate through and gain instruction in the
"What if I were to look once again at the names in
the bars, and to discover that I had misread them?
"What if it pleased God to keep me in this cell for
sixty years, and I employed the time to create a cosmol-
ogy based on the meaning in those words, and after that
time I looked once again and found I had mistranscribed
them, and all of my elaborations were based upon
error — would not that error have meaning? And if so,
meaning sufficient to justify my — we must say — mis-
"And if the error were not misguided, of what use the
original words upon the bars? And if they have no worth,
why do I find myself studying them?
"Is it, then, the exercise of my capacity that pleases
me, and the notion that it has significance merely the
goad to that pleasure?
"Perhaps it is our gift to reason merely to the extent
which would outwit the beasts of the field, and any fur-
ther or greater employ or elaboration of that gift must
lead to evil.
"And then, perhaps, it is the purpose of what we have
170 DAVID MAMET
come to call 'pursuit of knowledge' to countervail the ex-
ercise of that evil propensity. Could that be the case?
And then, perhaps, it is the meaning of 'knowledge,' 'to
do no evil,' and that is why it pleases.
"For how can we posit an ultimate Good, or own an
Improvement, as we know we are both bound to die and
likely to inflict misery during our life?
"But surely there are medical advances which have
lessened pain and lengthened our lives.
"But again, perhaps, if we would follow out thoughts
to the end, it is a greater good to pass quickly and be
done with it. Can we say that without demeaning that
force which gave us our life?
"Would it be better if those two deluded men, Gin-
nett and Hubbard, who divert themselves in what they
choose to style 'Penal Engineering' — would it be better if
they had not lived? If they had not lived, I would not be
drawn to this line of reasoning. Has this reasoning made
me better, or worse?
"Better or worse for what?
"To what end?
"Beth~Lechem," he said. "House of bread. The bread-
house. Certainly the home of a baker. Elizabeth, God-is-
my-pact. Daniel, God-is-my-judge. Bethel, the house of
God. Salem, Peace. He looked at the Hebrew primer in his
"'Who rises refreshed from his prayers, his prayers
have been answered.' "
Palestine, then, was a dream.
Not peopled by Turks — who- and whatever they
might be — but as in the days of the Bible, when tribes of
white people, just like oneself — Westerners, in fact, he
thought — roamed through a desert which might seem to
us inhospitable, but which they found a comfortable
home. The desert was home to them. Hot, but dry, dur-
ing the day, cold at night, granted, but was not the one a
welcome respite from the other? And could one, did one,
not experience it as a comfort, wrapped in the rugs and
hides, so warm, so light for transport, which made it
What did one need, finally, but the few things one
172 DAVID MAMET
"I am of a wandering race," he said. "The world is
Had not the Rabbi taught him, "Arami Avodi Avi . . ."?
"My Father," as the creed had it, "was a wandering Ara-
maean, who went down, with just a few, to Egypt, and,
there, became a Nation."
Each time Frank thought of this passage, he felt con-
He loved what was the first instance of his ability to
appreciate Hebrew poetry, in the alliteration of the first
three words, but he felt shame, as the word "Aramaean"
conjured to him the image of a blond, a non-"Jewish,"
finally, a Christian man — as if it were the purpose of the
creed to claim as he thought, more distinguished, or,
more to the point, less "maculate" heritage.
"No. They'd have to be dark," he thought, "for the
sun was hot. To be light would be to be maladapted.
What could that avail? Nothing," he thought. "And my
brief notion of life lived in the open must confirm the
simple truth that it is better to be correctly adapted than
to be in fashion. Whom would see you there? And what
is it but idolatry to crave fashionable appearance in the
wilds; where not only is there no mirror but, yes," he
thought, "in the desert, and distinguished from 'the
woods,' there is not even that stream or that accidental
pond which would allow one to gauge one's reflection."
At this, he became frightened.
THE OLD RELIGION 173
"Would that be, then," he thought, "as if one did not
"And what might that mean?"
He pictured an unhappy, discorporeal existence,
which, in his mind, meant nothing but anomie, an exis-
tence consisting in nothing but panic, with no external
manifestation of what might, for want of a better word,
be called the world; and, at once, the complementary
'happy' component of 'not to exist,' which was a free-
flowing animal consciousness of joy in oneself and one's
So he mused, picturing the desert. In his dream, it
was a happy woods, on a low and rolling ground — much
like the grounds at the Grand Hotel in North Carolina,
where he and his wife's family stayed summers.
"That was the desert to him — a state of perfect bal-
ance, where he was neither hot nor cold, hungry nor full.
"But not a state of peace," he thought. "One of
"But the sun would start to go down, then where
would I be? I would gravitate to my camp — to my Desert
Camp — where there would be a tent in the woods. This
tent would be laid inside with fine Turkey carpets. There
would be a fire. Within, a small ring of rocks, and a brass
tripod over it, and a young girl cooking for me and the
smell of coffee.
"She would look up to me as I entered, her eyes soft
174 DAVID MAMET
with submission, her eyes grave with love. A woman of
my tribe.' Yes," he thought. "Yes, I can allow myself to
revel in that phrase. Who is to stop me? 'A woman of my
tribe.' But," he thought, "she would not have a hooked
The lights went out. He was alone in the dark, with the
smell of sweat and filthy men's bodies. At intervals, the
wind would shift for a moment, and bring him a breath
of the fields.
"I suppose that this filth is just another form of fe-
cundity," he thought, "but I can't think so.
"Soon I'll be asleep. Perhaps the Christians are right,
and we should take all we have and give it to the poor. If
they would, I would."
"The question," the Rabbi observed, "may be asked in a
Looking back, one could always devise or imagine
warnings or signs; but, as they had been unheeded (if, in
fact, they ever occurred), of what good had they been?
What could they do save comfort one after the fact with
assurances of omnipotence?
"That is it," he said. "We can both suffer and mourn,
'How was I to know?' and, at once, celebrate our omni-
science: 'I had a sign. Which I did not heed.'
"The argument is, of course, useless. For if there
were a sign, why did you not heed — and, if you did not
heed, was it a sign?
"What can we not find in our memory to serve our
176 DAVID MAMET
vision of ourselves? But we can use this instance to con-
The Rabbi bobbed his head, and he moved closer to
the table, and he frowned across the table at Frank and
"The essence, you see," he said, "is a belief in our own
power. For if we believe in it at all — in our power to over-
come what we might call 'chance' — if we are unable to
understand our powerlessness, our mortality, then we de-
nominate ourselves God.
"If we are God, what can we not do? We are permit-
"Our difficulty lies in accommodating our weakness,
eh?, into the theory. Our weakness, which we see each day
and in each aspect of our day — our difficulty lies in ac-
commodating this knowledge with the belief that we are, in
"And, so we say, 'I knew that it was going to rain
today I should have taken my umbrella!'
"Well, then, finally, why didn't you?
"Why didn't the man, who proclaims not only that
he had the choice but that the choice was superfluous, as
he possessed — beyond the power to choose — possessed
"Why didn't you take the umbrella? He did not, do
you see, as he did not know that it would rain.
" 'Ah', but you say, 'an observant man, eh? Perhaps a
THE OLD RELIGION 177
farmer, a man who understood . . .'" The Rabbi
shrugged. "Uh . . . 'The sky, the weather . . . surely he may
have known it would rain.'
"Then why didn't he take his umbrella?"
He looked at Frank, as to say, "I am a man without
guile, without defenses. And at the moment I stand be-
fore you unarmed. Resting solely on the proposition: Do
with me as you will."
"Do you see? Which is true? 'Ah,' but you say, 'per-
haps there were countervailing motives.' Yes. When are
"The man looked at the sky. He perceived it might
rain. He chose not to encumber himself.
"Or, who can say, the umbrella had been put away.
And he was rushed. And unsure of its location. Or per-
haps he felt it shabby, and his duties of the day . . . You see
my point?" The Rabbi said, "Or, or, perhaps, it was too
fine, of too fine . . ." He searched for the word. "... a
manufacture. And, similarly, that it would be inappropriate
to carry it among the people he would see that day.
"Perhaps he wanted to wrong himself?'
He cast his arms up, to say, "Are we not mature men,
and should we shrink at these things?"
"Perhaps he'd had a fight; and, thinking it would rain,
looked forward to the very utterance 'I have seen the bet-
ter path, but I take the worse,' and wished to inflict pain
through the . . . the objectijuation of his self-hatred.
178 DAVID MAMET
"And perhaps none of these is true, and he'd only
wished, truly, to've had power over forces powerful over
"Who is to say?
"It remains: If he had had the choice, why did he not
"If he'd not had the choice, why did he make the as-
"The human mind is fashioned to compare." He paused.
He sighed, and took a package of cigarettes from the
lapel pocket of his coat, he offered one to Frank, who
nodded and took it.
The Rabbi took one, and drew a kitchen match out
of his pocket. He put his hands on the table, the match
sticking up between the fingers of his right hand. He
looked down at the crumpled pack of cigarettes lying be-
tween Frank and himself.
Frank glanced at him. "How can those," he thought,
"who are not Jews understand Jews?"
The prison library smelled of old paper. The scent
of hot pine came in the window, as if a sheet, drying in
the wind, had billowed, and let the air pass. The Rabbi
let the match fall onto the table. He took it and scratched
it underneath the tables lip, and he lit both their ciga-
"You say that you had a 'vision on that day. A Vision
that you should not have gone to the office.
THE OLD RELIGION 179
"Well, then, perhaps," he said, "you should not have
" 'What is a dream? What is a vision? What is real?'
These are, perhaps, questions for the secular mind. Do
you see? For when you come to know all that is real, what
"First, whom would you tell? And, then, would you
be happier? And, finally, is such knowledge necessary to
"Torture yourself if you will. The fact is, you did go
into the office. The question may be asked, not, 'Was it
my imagination,' but, 'Of what is my imagination a prod-
But perhaps there was such a thing as the goddess Neme-
And could it be that one was punished not for hav-
ing more, but for an awareness of it?
Was he meant to act, then, like a Christian disciple,
and give all he had to the poor?
The Christians themselves didn't act that way, and
they were enjoined to. How much less appropriate, then,
for a Jew? And, as he had not been so directed, why was
he being punished?
For the voice said, "You have too much."
And were there not many, many more prominent
than he, richer than he? More rich? "Hell," he thought,
"more rich. I was not rich at all. Am I to be persecuted
because I am not starving? I didn't set the wages, nor the
THE OLD RELIGION 181
hours, and there are places within ten blocks of the fac-
tory where the girls are treated (ax, jar worse. . . ."
"No, the day did not drag," he wrote to his wife, and,
"Yes, there is a satisfaction in the order of the day. I am
sure that the Appeal will prevail, and I do not write that
merely out of form, nor from false hope, nor out of be-
lief in some eventual triumph of goodness or reason, or
of balance in Human Affairs — though such might exist,
in fact, and I don't discount that possibility, neither em-
bracing it, as I say, naively.
"No. I believe the Appeal will prevail, as I hold that
there is a rhythm, if you will, in human intercourse,
which one can see in politics, in business, or in any inter-
action. I see that one violent moment gives rise to its op-
posite, as a wave dashing on a rock, or as a sudden surge,
out of all reason, in the price of a stock; or in the adop-
tion of a style in dress.
"Violence must engender its opposite. And the rush
to conclusion, absent any fact (in our case), must, given
time, cause, if not an equal, a substantial outpouring
of — I may say — equally unthought-out sympathy (of
course I will be happy to enjoy it).
"I feel it as one feels a change in the barometer; ab-
sent all other signs. We sense the shift in human affairs
with an animal sense; and I know it will be so here.
"Already I see it in the attitude of my jailers, and,
more significantly, in that of my fellow inmates, who,
little by little, but perceptibly, cease to look on me with
182 DAVID MA MET
that unconquerable loathing of prejudice, and com-
mence to see me as a man.
"Perhaps I imagine it; but, no, I do not. Just yesterday
a fellow told a joke, and, as I meant to move away — not
to seem to wish, uninvited, to presume to be part of the
group to which he intended speaking — he gestured (in
the minutest way, but there was that communication
nonetheless) that I was to stay.
"Which I did. Gratefully. For these are not small
acts. They are, to the contrary, that by which our history
"Which brings me back to the issue of Jim; and an
incident which transpired a year ago. Perhaps more. Say,
a year ago, when he was leaving work, and I joked ... (It
was a Saturday: Is that ironic? No? Is it significant? No.
Probably not, but how could I, at that point, fail to re-
mark it? I could not, I don't think.)
"I joked that he seemed in quite a hurry to be
gone — as I would have joked with any employee, I think.
For who would not be glad to be off? Anyone on Satur-
day. I accept it and avow their right. For why should they
stay one moment longer than those for which they had
contracted? And I have ... I will not say 'searched my
soul,' but 'considered' it, and do not feel at all that I im-
plied anything in the least recriminatory, although it may
have been the very license of financial authority which
made my joking onerous.
"In any case, I joked that he must have had a full
THE OLD RELIGION 183
night planned; and I saw his eyes narrow, and perceived
that he thought I had intended it in a suggestive way,
which, before God, I did not, and I saw that he resented
it 'full sore'; as if my position permitted me pleasantry
which, had he employed it, might result in penalty — per-
haps in a severe penalty — to him. And I allow that, and
would not, for the world, have offended him — but I saw
that he was angered and that hed remember it.
"A man wrote that we should be slow to hire and
quick to fire — that if we saw an employee would be
trouble at some point, wed better discharge them
then and there, paying whatever was necessary to the
end of whatever contracted term, but get them removed
from the premises before their attitude . . . (And, of
course, our attitude toward them — for who could func-
tion with suspicion? Suspicion is the heaviest weight —
that cumbersome anxiety, 'Will they be obstreperous?' and
so on) . . . that we should remove them immediately,
as the cheapest course. For if we see or suspect that
they might cause trouble, that suspicion constitutes trou-
ble in itself, which cannot be borne in a well-regulated
"When I saw his eyes, I felt, frankly, I had wronged
him. Though I did not intend to; and although I regretted it.
But one of us — well, no, I will not be facetious, I will not
say, 'One of us would have to leave.'
"He should have gone. I should have dismissed him.
And I think, perhaps that I kept him on out of a feeling
184 DAVID MAMET
of obligation, as I had subjected him, as I saw that he felt,
"The Rabbi reminds me that we do not believe in
false gods, nor in prophecy. And this comforts me, for I
am disposed to wonder at the power of the 'goddess
"As I said. But sober reflection, in light of the Rabbi's
words, reminds me that she is nothing but an elaboration
of my human feeling that if I had acted differently, all
would be well.
"And I know that nothing I have done has brought
on this occurrence — that I am not sufficiently powerful,
nor is my happiness or lack of it of sufficient moment to
the world, to engender this chain of events. To think so
is to aggrandize my importance. I see that it is Idolatry.
"My disposition, in spite of that knowledge, to the
idea of Nemesis is not magical; nor is it indication that
she does, in fact, exist. It is, I know, a simple human urge
to accept the attractive lie and call the power of its at-
He nodded to aTrusty shelving books on the far wall.
He laid the pen down on the wooden writing board.
The board was scoured by years of use. "So smooth," he
thought. "And how could it become smooth other than
through use? It could not."
As he mused, the man to whom he'd nodded left the
shelves and walked behind him drew a knife from his
shirt, grabbed Frank's chin from behind, and cut his throat.
Beyond the window there was fairyland. He tried, but he
could not dispel the illusion. It brought him back to his
youth; beyond youth, to an infancy. He looked and
thought, "This will pass quickly, and I will be touched at
the quaintness of my thoughts," but it did not pass.
He stood looking and thought, "And I cannot even
call myself 'fixed,' or 'mesmerized,' but I do not want to
The light was blue grey, and the moonlight shadows
were grey brown.
"It is so bright," he thought, "that, as they say, I
could read a newspaper by it." He tried to think of a
print so small as to thwart the moonlight, but he found
the thought too mechanical to grace the scene, and left it
unfinished in respect.
186 DAVID MAMET
The view was soft. The shapes were soft.
"There is nothing in the world," he thought, "equal
He tried to imagine animals as shapes moving in the
blue light, but he could not. "It is empty," he thought,
"of everything but spirit."
Now, in his cell, he recurred to that night by the lake.
"How perfect it was," he thought, and, "What were
my worries? What sick folly would have caused me a mo-
ment's unrest then? Could I but recapture that time . . ."
And yet he told himself that could he return, he
would, in days, in months, certainly, resume his previous
ways — return as he put it, "to myself"
There was the ripped pain in his throat. He could
still feel the knife where the man had cut him. He re-
membered, with a strange shame, thinking, "Why, it isn't
He felt the itching which meant that the wound was
healing. He remembered the sick, rank sweat in the man's
coveralls when the man straddled him and grabbed his
hair back to expose the neck and cut his throat, and the
look in his eyes of calm happiness as he cut his throat.
"What is more lovely than belonging?" he thought.
"Once a month the moon is full and stays full for
how many days, and then ebbs to nothing. And at every
stage it can be beautiful or stark, or it can fill us with
dread — there is no saying what concatenation of circum-
THE OLD RELIGION 187
stances might produce what effect. The man who tried to
kill me looked as if he could have been participating at
his daughter's wedding, or at the confirmation of a child.
Or the receipt of some reward.
"Does perfect innocence exist? What good is it if
these crimes are committed in striving to return to it?
Should we not simply repudiate it?
Should we not simply avow we cannot return?
"For if we are lured to return to innocence through
sin, should we not say, 'I am incapable of distinguishing
it, so I will renounce it'?
"Or he could have been a child going to sleep; or on
the edge of a perception, when he raised the knife. He
held it with the blade extending back, out of the little-
finger side of the hand, and back almost parallel to the
"Who would know to hold a knife like that when
you did a murder? Where would one learn that? Who
would teach that?"
He smelled the carbolic, and the iodine, soaking the
bandages on his neck. He turned his head to the side and
saw the white-painted metal of the hospital bed, and,
below the paint, the iron.
"White-into-black, and black-to-grey," he thought.
"The paint, and the chipped margin, are not various.
But the iron is. That is because it is not man-made; for,
try as we might . . ."
The moonlight made its usual flat and long shadows
188 DAVID MAMET
on the infirmary wall. "As they are moved to the right, it
is turned morning," he thought. "And today will be hot.
All of these people have been told by their God that it is
a praiseworthy act to want me dead. Am I in a dream?"
The panic rose in him. It was checked by the
thought: "It was the stock quotation — that was the print
so small it would have been difficult to read by moon-
light," and then he surrendered into madness for a while.
His throat healed with a speed which surprised him.
Under any circumstance, he thought, I would have
been pleased with my resiliency, but coming as it did,
however, in the midst . . . Well, he thought, I was meant
to live, in this instance, and that is the truth of it. Had I
been meant to die I would have died. And spring, no
doubt, and summer have much to do with the process, for
is it not true that the sap, that the emotive instinct, that
the urge to mate, that everything, in short, is quickened
in the spring; and why should we think ourselves exempt?
His scar itched with a force he'd described to himself
as intolerable until he reflected he could tolerate it, and
that it signaled his life — that he still lived, and that he
190 DAVID MA MET
We wish for philosophy, he thought. It will not
come, and when it conies, no doubt, we reflect it cost us
Or I could be miserable, he thought, and lie here re-
flecting on my misery — which is an equally supportable
As an exercise, he began to enumerate and to attempt
to embrace his troubles.
By which it will be seen, he thought, if my content
(he would not dare to think of it as happiness) is the ac-
cident of a momentary amnesia of my plight, or . . .
He listed his troubles to himself, feeling foolish,
both for squandering a moment's peace and as their bulk
was, to him, almost comic.
For who could credit it, he thought, a man who lately
fretted over . . . ? He searched for a triviality from his late
life with which to taunt himself.
And I know, he thought, that that mechanism to dis-
pel my rage is close at hand, and it is this:
Perhaps I was the murderer.
With this thought, his play was ended, and he fell
from philosophy to depression so swiftly as to erase the
memory of his investigation.
Nothing remained but rage and fury.
Perhaps I killed her. What was to have stopped me?
Nothing at all. Who was to know? I could have killed
her, and no one the wiser. And I had the opportunity,
THE OLD RELIGION 191
and the motive, as they say, if I am that beast, if I am that
invert, and would I not be, if I had killed her?
Then the one event, if I had misremembered it,
could make it right. If I had killed her, if I could avow
the fact, then it would all come right. I would be saved.
And that is what the Rabbi meant when he talked of the
Then I would be saved.
How would that be? How would that alter one, if I
walked down the street a member of that Community? If
. . . but, again, how could that be, if I had killed the
girl, he wondered, how could it be that a man would
merit his neighbors love more as a murderer than as a
In the transition to sleep, he balanced the two oppo-
Is there a rendition of events in which I am not a
murderer? Is there a version in which I am not a Jew? And
how can it be that I do not seem able to shed that iden-
Perhaps they're right, and it is a "blood guilt" —
whatever that may be. And they claim they can make
atonement for their sin by some "confession of faith"; but
I cannot; for if I embraced them, they would not em-
brace me, however far I would go. Though their savior was
a Jew . . . and if I were to see before me . . . He pictured
192 DAVID MAMET
himself in robe and sandals, in a desert scene, on a hill,
... to see before me those who were troubled, those
who were confused, those who . . . those who were . . .
The breeze smelled to him of dates, of "sand," of
He closed his eyes and saw a deep burnt orange — the
color, he thought, of peace.
Each breath was a joy. He could feel it descend to his
belly. It thrilled him. In his nostrils, in his throat.
He woke coughing blood, and rolled on his side,
The blood trickled from his mouth onto the sheet
and pooled on the sheet.
He nodded, slowly, in a colloquy with himself, as if
to say, "Yes. That's true; yes, I know that's true."
They took him by force from the prison hospital. Twelve
men in three cars. They made him lie on the floor of the
first sedan, a bag over his head, and drove through this
town and that for the better part of the night.
They talked curtly, and in abbreviated phrases, of
their object and their destination, and then the time
would pass, and they would lapse, forgetful, into a nor-
mal speech, and revert to their everyday subjects — the
crops, or town life, or such — until one or the other
would remind the group of their errand.
Well past dawn, they stopped and took him from
They took the bag from his head and showed him
the tree, and he nodded at the sizable crowd which had
194 DAVID MAMET
gathered, and which answered his question as to whether
the drive was a planned or an improvised event.
They moved to re-cover his head, and he asked them
to stop, and removed his wedding ring. He asked that it
be returned to his wife.
One of the men stretched out his hand in a noncom-
mittal way, and Frank gave him the ring.
They covered his head, and they ripped his pants off
and castrated him and hung him from the tree.
A photographer took a picture showing the mob, one
boy grinning at the camera, the body hanging, the legs
covered by a blanket tied around the waist.
The photo, reproduced as a postcard, was sold for
many years in stores throughout the South.
The Jew Accused
by Albert S. Lindemann
The Leo Frank Case
by Leonard Dinnerstein
A Little Girl Is Dead
by Harry Golden
With thanks for
the kind assistance
of Anita Landa